Melting Icecaps Mean More Time Ashore for Polar Bears

The Arctic, a barren icy landscape sitting at the northernmost part of Earth, is a unique ecosystem.

Marked by the Arctic circle, an invisible line circling the globe at around 66° 34' N of the equator, with long winters, harsh winds, and plunging temperatures. This environment isn’t for everyone. Polar bears however, have become specially adapted to the Arctic. In a recent study by researchers at the Alaska Science Center, changes in movements of polar bears were monitored. Scientists are now concerned for the future of this species as they are spending less and less time on the ice each winter having possible knock-on effects on population survival.

Polar bears stay close to the sea ice over the winter periods using it to hunt, find food and build maternal dens to look after their young only returning to land when the sea ice begins to break up and melt in summer. But with climate change causing an increase in the sea ice melt season, this has caused a shift in the behavior and habitat choice of these white giants.

Global climate change and rising sea levels is a constant issue within society. Scientists are constantly appearing on the news telling us what effects this is going to have in the future, but for these animals, it is their present.

Research published in June of this year found that the amount of time Polar bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea spend ashore tripled over the last 15 years. This is thought to be a direct effect of the lengthening of the sea ice melt season, which has increased by over a month since the 1990s. This is also having an effect on the average length of stay ashore, which has increased by similar time frames.

Due to the unique habitat Polar bears live in, this drastic change in environment and resulting evolutionary reaction can have radical impacts on the species’ population. With the earlier start of the sea ice melt season, the individuals are faced with life and death decisions. Do they remain with the ice as it retreats well past the usual shallows and risks a lack of prey? Or do they head to shore, and risk being trapped in a habitat with a lack of resources and more exposure to risks such as humans?

Original Paper:

Atwood, T. C., Peacock, E., McKinney, M. A., Lillie, K., Wilson, R., Douglas, D. C., ... & Terletzky, P. (2016). Rapid Environmental Change Drives Increased Land Use by an Arctic Marine Predator. PloS one, 11(6), e0155932.

By: Bernice Hyett, University of Portsmouth, School of Biological Sciences (Institute of Marine Sciences)

ecoCURRENTS is a joint initiative between ECO magazine and select universities, which benefits science students by recruiting them to summarize the latest marine science research and providing them with a published byline. Beginning in December 2016, students from University of Portsmouth, School of Biological Sciences (Institute of Marine Science) contributed short articles to ECO editor Greg Leatherman. These are published online, with select articles also appearing in ECO’s print edition.

ECO expects to add more universities to this initiative during 2017. Interested administrators should contact Greg Leatherman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Special thanks goes to Kira Coley, a lecturer in science communication at the University of Portsmouth, who played a major role in getting ecoCURRENTS underway.

ECO Magazine is a marine science publication committed to bringing scientists and professionals the latest ground-breaking research, industry news, and job opportunities from around the world.

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