When the polar bear is far away from its pack ice

When the polar bear is far away from its pack ice

He lies slumped in the sun, facing the waves, far from the pack ice. On the rocks, its white fur is useless camouflage. Life now slows for this Canadian polar bear, a hugely built male, away from his prey, the seals.

In midsummer, in Hudson Bay in northern Canada, the last chunks of ice lie like confetti in the blue expanse. All around, the coast is almost flat and consists of rocks, tall grasses, especially willowherb with purple flowers, and scrawny trees that struggle to grow with the wind.

This is a critical time for bears in the region. Every year, from the end of June, when the ice disappears, they are forced to settle on this shore and begin a Lent that is getting longer and more dangerous for them.

Once on land, “bears typically have very few food options,” says Geoff York, biologist at Polar Bear International (PBI).

The American comes to Churchill, a town at the gateway to the Arctic in the Canadian province of Manitoba, several weeks a year to follow the evolution of the endangered animal.

The polar bears’ entire annual cycle is being challenged by the effects of global warming (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

Watching is easier here than anywhere else on the pack ice by renting tundra-adapted 4WDs or Zodiacs in Hudson Bay. During one of these expeditions, an AFP team was able to accompany Geoff York in early August.

A bone fragment near the impressive man basking in the sun. But nothing that doesn’t satisfy this beast of about 3.5 meters for about 600 kilos.

“In some places they might find a beluga carcass or a careless seal near the shore, but most of the time they’re fasting and lose about a kilo a day,” the scientist continues.

In the Arctic, global warming is three times faster than anywhere else in the world, and according to the latest studies even four times faster. The pack ice, habitat of polar bears, is gradually disappearing.

According to a 2020 report in Nature Climate Change, this could mean the virtual extinction of this emblematic animal: from 1,200 individuals in the 1980s, the polar bear population in western Hudson Bay has grown to about 800 today.

– summer scarcity –

In summer, the pack-ice begins to melt earlier and earlier, and winter glaciation occurs later: their entire annual rhythm is being challenged by the effects of global warming.

The opportunity to accumulate fat and calorie reserves before summer starvation is reduced.

The polar bear — also known as Ursus maritimus — is a meticulous carnivore that primarily feeds on the white blubber that coats seals’ bodies.

But now, in summer, this arctic superpredator sometimes comes to feed on algae. Like this mother and her cub, seen just off the port of Churchill, which calls itself the “Capital of Polar Bears.”

The limit outside the ice “for females responsible for feeding their young, which are breastfed until the age of two, is about 117 days” versus 180 for males, explains American Steve Amstrup, senior scientist at the PBI.

As a result, births are declining and it is becoming increasingly rare for females to give birth to three young, as was often the case in the past.

A whole world in decline that Geoff York, 54, knows by heart after spending more than 20 years surveying the Arctic for environmental organization WWF and then PBI.

In Alaska, for example, where he retained a stubborn memory of fangs planted in his leg during capture. Or when he faced a woman in a cave he thought was empty. This quiet man cried “louder than ever” in his life that day.

Today, however, the polar bear is a colossus with feet of clay.

In Hudson Bay, “polar bears now stay on land an average of a month longer than their parents or grandparents.”

“That forces them, when they become physically weak, to take more risks to find food, including approaching humans.”

– patrols in the city –

Binoculars in hand, provincial wildlife officer Ian Van Nest scans the rocks around Churchill several times a day, “where the bears like to hide”.

In this car-inaccessible town of 800 residents, the bears had a few years ago taken to frequent the garbage collection point, a simple but harmful food source for them.

They could be seen shredding garbage bags, eating plastic, or sticking their noses in tin cans amidst burning garbage.

Since then, precautions have been taken. The landfill is one of the best guarded places with cameras, fences and patrols.

Across the city, car and house doors remain open in case you need to flee there after a nasty encounter with the largest terrestrial carnivore.

Finding nothing to eat, the polar bears venture into the town of Churchill.  August 4, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
Finding nothing to eat, the polar bears venture into the town of Churchill. August 4, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

And here, on all the walls, is the emergency number to reach Ian or his colleagues.

When the 911 phone rings, they enter the crime scene, jump into their pickup truck, armed with a rifle and an aerosol can with a bulletproof vest on their backs. Ian Van Nest, in his mid-thirties with a fine beard, takes his role, which has become crucial with the spread of plantigrades in the city, very seriously.

“Sometimes you have to stun the bear, sometimes you just have to honk,” said the father of the AFP news agency during an inspection. “If we have to get out of the car, we use deterrent missiles. We shoot next to him, we don’t want to hurt him.”

There will be more surveillance in some areas, particularly around the school in the mornings before doors open “to ensure families are quiet out and about”.

Last bad memory: 2013, when a woman was badly injured by a bear in front of her house, narrowly saved by her neighbor, who came out in his pajamas armed with his snow shovel.

Sometimes the animal has to be captured and then flown further north or put behind bars until winter.

Churchill’s only prison is for bears: 28 cells, sometimes full in the fall when bears roam the city en masse waiting for the ice to form again in November.

– “Air conditioning the planet” –

The fall of the polar bear should alarm us, because the Arctic is a good “barometer,” notes Flavio Lehner, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University in the United States, also on the expedition.

Summer sea ice has shrunk by nearly 50% since the 1980s, according to the National Snow And Ice Data Center.

“We are seeing some of the most significant changes” in the world here, says the Swiss scientist.

This region is important on a larger scale because “it’s a kind of climate control of the planet, thanks to this important feedback mechanism of sea ice and snow in general,” from which the white mirror returns 80% of solar radiation, thus cooling it, he explains.

A polar bear snorts after hunting beluga whales on the shores of Hudson Bay near Churchill on August 9, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
A polar bear snorts after hunting beluga whales on the shores of Hudson Bay near Churchill on August 9, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

If the Arctic loses this reflectivity, there will be consequences for global temperature as a whole.

So when sea ice melts, the much darker sea surface that replaces it absorbs 80% of the sun’s radiation, which accelerates warming, Flavio Lehner continues.

A few years ago, scientists feared that Arctic summer sea ice would quickly reach a climatic “tipping point” and disappear permanently above a certain temperature.

Recent studies show that the phenomenon is reversible. “If we ever manage to bring temperatures down again, the sea ice will come back,” says the scientist.

Yet today, “all ecosystems without exception” in the region are affected by the effects of global warming, explains Jane Waterman, a biologist at the University of Manitoba.

Permafrost – ground that remains permanently frozen for two consecutive years – has begun to melt, and in Churchill the contours of the landscape have already shifted, damaging railroad tracks and wildlife habitat.

A polar bear tries to catch a beluga whale in Hudson Bay.  August 9, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
A polar bear tries to catch a beluga whale in Hudson Bay. August 9, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

The entire food chain is threatened, also by the appearance of other animals such as red foxes or wolves that endanger arctic species.

From viruses and bacteria to whales, according to the Canadian scientist, “nothing is spared from change”.

– summer retreat for belugas –

Not even belugas, who migrate by the tens of thousands from Arctic waters in the summer to find sanctuary in Hudson Bay. These little white whales can be seen all over this blue expanse.

In the Arctic, the beluga doesn't have as much prey as it used to.  Hudson Bay on August 5, 2022 (AFP - Olivier MORIN)
In the Arctic, the beluga doesn’t have as much prey as it used to. Hudson Bay on August 5, 2022 (AFP – Olivier MORIN)

In small groups, in a perpetual broom, they happily follow the boats of scientists who have come to study them and seem to take pleasure in displaying their large round heads and breathing a few centimeters from the observers.

The smaller, gray animals lean on their mothers’ backs in this estuary with relatively warmer waters, where they can protect themselves from killer whales and find plenty of food.

But more generally, the beluga doesn’t have as much prey available in “certain areas of the Arctic” as it used to, explains Valeria Vergara, an Argentine researcher who has devoted her life to studying these cetaceans.

“The lack of sea ice prevents phytoplankton from surviving and thereby feeding zooplankton, which feed large fish,” explains the Raincoast Conservation Foundation scientist. Belugas have to dive much deeper to find their food, which takes more energy.

And in Hudson Bay, a new danger awaits them: Some climate models predict that ships could sail there year-round from 2030 as the sea ice recedes.

However, noise pollution is a major problem for the species, which, with the development of its communication (hiss, click, ringing …), has been nicknamed “sea canaries”. They “rely on sounds to communicate, but also to locate themselves, to find their way, to find food…” explains Valeria Vergara.

Thanks to the boat’s hydrophone, the “Beluga Boat”, conversations from the deep come to the surface. Above all, the 53-year-old researcher can recognize the cries of mothers to maintain contact with their young.

For a beginner’s ear, it’s a surprising and cacophonous ensemble. A busy community without a doubt. But until when, the scientists are alarmed.

Far from the pack ice, we saw a beluga in the Seine in France this summer and a polar bear in southern Canada in May.

Reference: www.challenges.fr

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