Possible Impacts of Climatic Warming on Polar Bears

Ian Stirling, Andrew E. Derocher


If climatic warming occurs, the first impacts on polar bears (Ursus maritimus) will be felt at the southern limits of their distribution, such as in James and Hudson bays, where the whole population is already forced to fast for approximately four months when the sea ice melts during the summer. Prolonging the ice-free period will increase nutritional stress on this population until they are no longer able to store enough fat to survive the ice-free period. Early signs of impact will include declining body condition, lowered reproductive rates, reduced survival of cubs, and an increase in polar bear-human interactions. Although most of these changes are currently detectable in the polar bears of western Hudson Bay, it cannot yet be determined if climatic change is involved. In the High Arctic, a decrease in ice cover may stimulate an initial increase in biological productivity. Eventually however, it is likely that seal populations will decline wherever the quality and availability of breeding habitat are reduced. Rain during the late winter may cause polar bear maternity dens to collapse, causing the death of occupants. Human-bear problems will increase as the open water period becomes longer and bears fasting and relying on their fat reserves become food stressed. If populations of polar bears decline, harvest quotas for native people will be reduced and eventually eliminated. Tourism based on viewing polar bears would become extirpated from at least the southern part of their range. If climatic warming occurs, the polar bear is an ideal species through which to monitor the cumulative effects in arctic marine ecosystems because of its position at the top of the arctic marine food chain.

Key words: polar bear, Ursus maritirnus, climatic change, Hudson Bay


Animal distribution; Animal food; Animal population; Animal reproduction; Breakup; Climate change; Denning; Effects monitoring; Effects of climate on ice; Extirpation; Ice cover; Photosynthesis; Polar bears; Primary production (Biology); Quotas; Sea ice; Seals (Animals); Spatial distribution; Tourist trade; Wildlife habitat; Cumulative effects; Hudson Bay; Hudson Bay region; James Bay

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic1348

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