Sea ice is said to be “an essential habitat for polar bears” but that’s an overly simplistic advocacy meme as ridiculous as the “no sea ice, no polar bears” message with which the public is constantly bombarded. Polar bears require sea ice from late fall to late spring only: from early summer to mid-fall, sea ice is optional. Historical evidence of polar bears that spent 5 months on land during the summer of 1874 proves an extended stay ashore is a natural response of polar bears to natural summer ice retreat, not a consequence of recent human-caused global warming. Sea ice is a seasonal requirement for polar bears: it’s not necessary year round.
[This PBI newsletter from 2011 repeats this meme and Andrew Derocher’s recent tweet conveys a similar message (“Sea ice loss = habitat loss for polar bears”)]
As long as sea ice is available from late fall through late spring (December to early June) and accompanied by abundant seal prey (sometimes it isn’t, see Derocher and Stirling 1995; Stirling 2002; Stirling et al. 1981, 1982, 1984), polar bears can survive a complete or nearly complete fast from June to late November (and pregnant females from June to early April the following year). That’s the beauty of their Arctic adaptation: fat deposited in early spring allows polar bears to survive an extraordinary fast whether they spend the time on land or sea ice.
Young and very old bears, as well as sick and injured ones, are the exception: these bears often come ashore in poor condition and end up dying of starvation — as a much-publicized bear on Baffin Island who likely had a form of cancer did last summer (Crockford 2018). Competition with bigger, stronger bears means these bears can’t keep what they are able to kill and they are most often the bears who cause problems. Starvation is the leading natural cause of death for polar bears because if they cannot put on the fat they need in spring, they will not survive the low food months of summer and winter, whether they are on land or out on the sea ice (Amstrup 2003). Continue reading
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