Chasing polar bears in the high arctic
Location: Svalbard Archipelago
Date: September 2013
Photographer: Marco Gaiotti
The high arctic is a changing environment, it is not my intention to discuss about the reasons of global warming, but it is a matter of fact that no other habitat on earth is experiencing such a sudden transformation. The reason lies in a fragile balance governing the equation of state of water: the transition between ice and water is not a smooth boarder as it takes only a fraction of a degree more to cause the melting of entire portions of the Arctic Ocean.
Reporting impressions from my late September trip, when sea ice reaches its seasonal minimum, I want to bear witness of how climate change is affecting polar bear population around Svalbard Archipelago.
Polar bears are adapted to feed on several species of seals living on icepack: once the ice melts, bears are no longer able to access their primary source of food.
Actually two distinct behaviours are observed when sea ice starts retreating in spring: some bears decide to follow the ice edge moving north while others swim south, towards the islands in Northern Svalbard. So far no substantial differences in terms of survival and reproduction rate have been observed between the two strategies, but in the last years northern Svalbard have experienced longer and longer period without sea ice in summer. Thus, biologists are not concerned about the survival of polar bear as a species, at least in the imminent future, but they believe polar bear distribution throughout the arctic will be strongly reduced. In particular, it is a common thought that polar bears will disappear from Svalbard once the sea ice will stop forming in winter. This condition will occur within the next 10-15 years at the current warming rate.
On the sea ice, the preferred polar bear habitat, I had the impression of a healthy population, well nourished and far from the image given by some nature documentary reporting of a critical condition. Then we spend a few days exploring the small islands located in the northernmost part of the archipelago, which are basically isolated groups of small rocks touched by the Arctic Ocean. Here is where several polar bears find refuge after swimming for hundreds of kilometres when drifting ice melts in summer. On the islands, there is not any source of food, except from some bird colonies. In addition, walruses are common in this region, but they are too strong and dangerous for a bear: some attacks have been reported, but they often end with the death of the predator. The number of bear we discover on the shores of these islands is simply incredible, considering we are talking about a solitary animal, and as expected the condition of the animals was quite critical with many skinny bears, who could only await for the next winter trying to survive consuming their fat reserves in a sort of vigilant hibernation.