This short BBC video shows why polar bears are so often unsuccessful in their summer hunts – adult bearded seals are the species most often available on the ice. These seals are not only predator-savvy but there are lots of escape routes in the melting ice, and this has always been so.
“Hungry polar bear surprises a seal – The Hunt: Episode 2 Preview – BBC One”
Melting ice in summer is not a new phenomenon (e.g. NASA photo below from mid-July 2016) – Thomas Grenfell and Gary Maykut described the process of melt pond development back in the 1970s:
“Melt ponds reach the maximum extent shortly after the disappearance of the snow, when they may cover upwards of 50% of the ice.”
Melting summer ice has always made it challenging for polar bears to catch seals, as this quote from Ian Stirling (1974) show, based on his work in the Central Canadian Arctic in the summer of 1973 (July and August):
“There is a great abundance of natural holes in the ice during summer, anyone of which a seal could surface through. “
This is still true in areas like the Southern Beaufort Sea today (e.g. Whiteman et al. 2015): the ice melts and in some areas, disappears completely in summer.
It’s why polar bears – unlike other species of bears in summer – depend on their stored fat to see them through until the ice reforms in the fall.
[When polar bear scientists say “sea ice” or “ice” – they mean summer sea ice. Sea ice in winter and spring are not predicted to decline by 2100 to any appreciable degree and that has been true since sea ice predictions began]
Polar bears in Hudson Bay and Davis Strait routinely go 4-5 months without sea ice in the summer and have done since studies on them began. Yet, all of the polar bear subpopulations in Hudson Bay and Davis Strait are stable or increasing.
Read more on the importance of spring feeding here (with references).
Grenfell, T.C. and Maykut, G. A. 1977. The optical properties of ice and snow in the Arctic Basin. Journal of Glaciology 18 (80):445-463. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/igsoc/jog/1977/00000018/00000080/art00008
Stirling, I. 1974. Midsummer observations on the behavior of wild polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Canadian Journal of Zoology 52: 1191-1198. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/z74-157#.VR2zaOFmwS4
Whiteman, J.P., Harlow, H.J., Durner, G.M., Anderson-Sprecher, R., Albeke, S.E., Regehr, E.V., Amstrup, S.C., and Ben-David, M. 2015. Summer declines in activity and body temperature offer polar bears limited energy savings. Science 349:295-298.