Researchers identify polar bear population that hunts off glacier ice

A polar bear family group, consisting of an adult female (left) and two cubs, crosses glacier ice in Southeast Greenland in September 2016. (NASA OMG)

A genetically distinct polar bear population that hunts off freshwater ice has been identified in Greenland, researchers outline in a paper published June 16 in the journal Science. 

The population, which is thriving in freshwater ice conditions in the southeast part of the island, could provide important insight into the resilience of the animals as climate change continues to impact sea ice habitat across the Arctic, the researchers say. 

“Normally, polar bears spend three to four months hunting seals off the sea ice and getting very fat, then spend the rest of the year on land and losing weight,” Fernando Ugarte, a co-author of paper, said in an interview from Nuuk, Greenland where he’s head of the Department of Birds and Mammals at the Greenland Institute of National Resources. 

“But that’s not what we saw in this population.They live in an area with lots of glaciers that calve into the ocean, and they can use this ice to catch the seals, even when there’s no sea ice.

“And what’s surprising is that in southeast Greenland, this is a separate population.” 

Satellite tracking shows that the Southeast and Northeast polar bear populations are distinct and have different behaviors. The blue lines show that Northeast Greenland polar bears travel across extensive sea ice to hunt. The red lines show that Southeast Greenland polar bears have more limited movements inside their home fjords or neighboring fjords. (Laidre et al./Science)

The researchers used 36 years of data on polar bears, encompassing everything from local knowledge, to movement, genetic, demographic, satellite and observational data. 

“Before we did anything, we documented Inuit knowledge,” Ugarte said, with hunters providing reports on what they saw out on the land as well as things like tooth and tissue samples from the bears.

Researchers still don’t know exactly how many of these southeast Greenland bears there are, but their population is small, estimated to be between a few hundred and 1,000, Ugarte said.

Adaptability in unique conditions 

The Arctic is warming three times as fast as the rest of the world, with sea ice habitat increasingly being lost, and concerns about what that means for animals like polar bears that rely on the ice for food. 

The study’s findings provide insights to the resiliency of the animals in areas where sea ice disappears.

Three adult polar bears in Southeast Greenland in April 2015 using the sea ice during the limited time when it is available. (Kristin Laidre)

But Ugarte cautions that outside Greenland and Svalbard, the Norwegian Arctic archipelago, the isolated conditions and unique fjord landscape that gives the southeastern Greenland bear population access to ongoing freshwater ice where glaciers terminate, doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Arctic.

“We should not over-interpret,” he said. “This does not mean polar bears will be fine in the whole Arctic, just in some areas.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: “Our climate is changing before our eyes,” says WMO upon release of new report, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Melting of Greenland glacier generating its own heat and accelerating thaw from base, says study, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Natural event seems to slow Icelandic glacier melt, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Will the green transition be the new economic motor in the Arctic?, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sweden’s climate policies closer to reaching goals, Radio Sweden

United States: Bering Sea ice at lowest extent in at least 5,500 years, study says, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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