By Courtney Mattison for Mission Blue
For those who have observed polar bears in the wild, the experiences they recall often sound reverential and daring. The world’s largest land predator, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are larger and more carnivorous than grizzlies and hunt both on land and in the sea. But on Mission Blue’s latest Hope Spot Expedition to the Norwegian Arctic, the bears we observed were more threatened than threatening.
“So we just came upon a mother and cub and they are very very skinny,” said Mette Eliseussen, Manager and Expedition Leader for Arctic Voyagers at Basecamp Spitsbergen, as she led the Mission Blue Expedition Team aboard an inflatable boat within a safe distance of two polar bears. Kip Evans, Mission Blue Director of Expeditions and Photography and leader of the expedition, focused his camera lens at the bears and began shooting images. He observed:
This morning when Mette woke us up and said that she had spotted two polar bears on the shore, I think we were all super excited. When we went outside and looked through the spotting scope we could see the mother and her cub on the snow. And it was amazing. It was the first polar bears I’ve ever seen during my career. We took the Zodiac over towards their location, and as we approached they saw us and started to stand up. I looked through the viewfinder of my 500-mm lens and excitedly started to shoot, but excitement turned to sorrow pretty quickly because I realized I could see the outlines of their ribs on their bodies. And as they turned and started heading towards the hill, I could really see how decimated they were. And it just, really struck me to the core. I think that you read about wildlife in the Arctic, and you can’t help as a photographer getting excited about it, but I’m kind of sitting here with a completely different impression and a completely different feeling in my gut now. And it’s not a good one. It’s one of sorrow and sadness.
Polar bears depend on sea ice—ice that forms directly from seawater—as platforms to hunt seals, their main prey. Their dependence on the sea for food and habitat makes them the only bear species to be considered a marine mammal, and the first to be threatened by climate change. Global warming is occurring more quickly at the poles than elsewhere on Earth, making ice melt earlier in the spring and freeze up later in the fall. Less sea ice directly leads to fewer calories for polar bears, causing them to have smaller body sizes, fewer cubs and eventually smaller populations.
Climate change and its impacts on polar bears were a main focus of Mission Blue’s Spitsbergen Island Hope Spot Expedition, sponsored by French luxury skincare brand, Biotherm. In June our team partnered with Polar Bears International and other science and policy experts aboard the S/V Linden to observe and document the impacts of climate change in this remote area within the Svalbard Archipelago. Located between 78°-80° north latitude, nearly equidistant between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Spitsbergen shares a common polar bear population with the rest of Svalbard and nearby Franz Joseph Land.
“I think the loss of sea ice really affects the whole ecosystem,” says Alysa McCall, Director of Conservation Outreach and Staff Scientist for Polar Bears International, who shared her expertise during the expedition. She continues, “We sometimes say sea ice is to the ocean what soil is to the forest. It’s really growing the food chain. As we’re losing that, we’re seeing a total shift of all these different species.”
For the two bears we observed, life will likely become increasingly difficult as the summer wears on. Given continuous access to sea ice, polar bears can hunt year-round. But when ice melts in the summer as we witnessed along the west coast of Spitsbergen Island, bears stay on land and must fast on stored fat reserves until sea ice returns in the fall. A dead whale washing up on shore could save their lives, according to Mette Eliseussen. She noted, “Both of them most likely haven’t had any food for a long time,” and explained:
There haven’t been any good hunting grounds here this year. We lack the sea ice during the winter. Now they are relying on glaciers with small pieces of ice where they can find maybe a seal laying. That will be their hunting possibilities besides scavenging for eggs from nesting birds—ducks, terns—but that’s not going to give them enough food.
Polar bears can burn 12,000 calories per day, and this high metabolic rate means that they need to eat a lot of seals rich in calories and fat to maintain a healthy body weight. Female polar bears can more than double their body weight in the spring through summer in ideal conditions. Hunting on sea ice is crucial to both mother and cubs’ survival, says Alysa McCall. “Female polar bears in this area tend to den on land,” she says, “but as soon as they exit their den with brand new cubs, they’re expecting to see sea ice right there and start eating right away, because the females haven’t eaten for five to eight months.” McCall continues, “So now that we’re seeing this loss of sea ice, these moms are extra stressed, and so it’s hard for them to bring their cubs up into adulthood.” Breeding also becomes more difficult, as females lack the necessary body fat to sustain a pregnancy in the first place. Less body fat leads to fewer cubs being born.
Polar bears in Svalbard face other challenges in addition to human-caused climate change and sea ice loss. Pollution is a big problem. McCall says, “Because of where this population is in terms of currents and where the ocean is bringing up pollutants, these are some of the most highly polluted polar bears in the world.” In such a remote, sparsely populated place as Spitsbergen Island, it can be difficult to imagine polar bears accumulating many toxins. However, wind and ocean currents transport toxic industrial chemicals like PCBs and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS, a key ingredient in Scotchguard) from distant factories all the way up to Svalbard. “There is no longer such a thing as an unpolluted polar bear,” according to Polar Bears International. “Even before the young cubs leave the den with their mother, she has transferred enough pollutants to them via her milk that they are among the most contaminated beings on Earth.” The effects of these contaminants range from hormone imbalances that are vital to growth, reproduction and metabolism to disease and decreased size of genitalia.
Polar bears are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and protected under the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears. Researchers expect that without urgent action to mitigate climate change, wild polar bears could be extinct by the year 2100. Since their lives are so dependent on sea ice, polar bears are a canary in the coalmine for overall conditions in the Arctic, explains McCall. “By the time there are no polar bears left,” she says, “it’s going to mean major problems for humans too.” Laura Cassiani, Executive Director of Mission Blue, noted this link as well:
When you see them suffering like this and you realize it’s not just these bears that are suffering, it’s the whole population of bears, it really hits you hard that we are in trouble—that our whole natural world is changing so fast that we have no idea how and when it’s going to impact all of us, but for sure it is going to impact us.
There is still time to save polar bears if nations around the globe reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough—something that could be accomplished by upholding UNFCCC Paris Agreement pledges. As a Mission Blue Hope Spot Expedition, this voyage was designed to create awareness, foster partnerships and ignite broad public support for a global network of marine protected areas, or “Hope Spots.” Global warming can seem like such an enormous issue that individual actions won’t help, but that isn’t true. Choices we make each day impact fossil fuel emissions, from the food we eat and modes of transportation we use to environmental regulations and businesses we support. Mission Blue inspires action to explore and protect the ocean, using tools like the concept of “Hope Spots” to ignite public support for environmental conservation. Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of the Global Marine and Polar Program for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Mission Blue Board Director, described the value of Hope Spots during the expedition:
I think we all need hope. And I think the whole concept of Hope Spots is really central to making people feel they can do something about the shifts that are happening here. So we see the shifts that are happening to the glaciers. We see what’s happening to nature. We now want to help people to find meaningful ways of dealing with it. Hope Spots can be a very effective tool to get people to feel empowered, help them to push governments to put regulators in place. That really makes a difference for the nature around us and ultimately for our own livelihoods.
Special thanks to Biotherm for sponsoring this Hope Spot expedition. Thanks also to Polar Bears International for their partnership, expertise and technical support in the field; to ScubaPro for outfitting our team; Gates Underwater Products for use of the Pro Action Housing; and the S/V Linden, Longyearbyen Dive Club, Basecamp Explorer, and Magnetic North Travel for keeping our team safe and informed in the field.
Want to learn more about polar bears? Check out polarbearsinternational.org
To learn what you can do to help combat climate change, check out 350.org. Everyone’s actions make a difference.