Climate Change, Polar Bear Observations From a Personal Expedition

Editor’s Note: The following is a special report by SC Associate Publisher/Photographer Chuck Larsen and SC Contributing Writer Shelby Larsen. 

We hear about climate change and global warming constantly, although with a variety of different opinions. We wanted to see reported effects of climate change for ourselves, in order to better understand the issue. It seems that authorities agree that the areas of our planet where change is most clearly visible are the polar regions.

Polar bears, those cute, fuzzy, white bears used as spokes-bears for the holiday Coca-Cola commercials, are frequently cited as being endangered by climate change. The New Yorker points out that “polar bears have become an indisputable image of climate change,” and so, how better to see first-hand the effects of changing conditions than to see how the polar bears are doing.

In looking where to go, we found Wrangel Island, located in the Russian Arctic between the Chukchi Sea and the East Siberian Sea. Wrangel Island is on the 180th meridian, the International Date line. Wrangel Island has the largest concentration of polar bears in the world, and serves as a breeding ground, having the most dens of any location where polar bears are found.

As the largest carnivore in the world, the bear can weigh up to 1,700 pounds, and are up to five-feet tall on four legs. On their hind legs, they can be between nine and ten feet tall. To see this magnificent creature in its own habitat, we set off to Wrangel Island, joining a French civilian expedition ship. We crossed the Bering Strait from Alaska, into what has recently been named by Russian authorities as the Russian Military Zone, along the coast of Siberia, and headed north. Ship traffic in the Military Zone is carefully monitored. We suspect that an American ship would have been denied entry. In fact, we were told by crew officers, that this was the last civilian ship allowed in the Military Zone until further notice.

We were grateful for this chance to perhaps get a look at the bears, to see how they were doing. We were fortunate to have a group of international naturalists on board to help us interpret and understand what we were seeing.

Polar bears diet is mainly seal, which they catch when seals come up through breaks in the sea ice to breathe, or they find the dens of new seal pups and break through the ice to get them.

However, we were told, both in Alaska and on board, that the sea ice is now forming about six weeks later and thawing about six weeks earlier. That’s a full three months of less time for the bears to go seal hunting, and fatten up for the summer months.

We arrived at Wrangel Island, a rare ecosystem which has been relatively undisturbed since ancient times. As such, it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Currently, its 2,900 square miles of human inhabitants are four year-round Russian Park Rangers, visiting scientific missions in the summer. Reportedly, and unfortunately for the pristine ecosystem if true, there is also now a large military base and airfield on the back side of the island.

It is home to many species of birds, seals, and walrus, as well as the polar bears. The walrus population is said to include most of the Russian Arctic’s walrus.

Some remains of ancient human habitation, dated c.1700 BCE, have been found, as well as those of the last of the Woolly Mammoths. It is still an (almost) perfect place to see how today’s polar bear population is reacting to changes in climate.

The answer is, they are doing just fine. While their normal hunting and eating season has been shortened, the bears have adapted, in very interesting ways.

Naturalists, and the Park Rangers, told us that they have now frequently observed bears hunting and catching seals in the open water, previously a rare occurrence. It’s a lot more difficult, but they have learned techniques to accomplish the task. Also, in the past, the bears have not hunted the large walrus population. The long tusks and very tough skin have been a deterrent to taking on the 3,700 pounds, plus or minus, animal. More recently, though, several bears will gather and attack simultaneously, stampeding the walrus colony. The young, old and injured are often trampled, making a feast for all. We witnessed a group of 14 polar bears dining on a walrus carcass. All appeared to be well nourished, and they ate in an orderly manner, however polar bears decide these things.

There are also countless numbers of lemmings on the island. Traditionally, rat sized rodents were too small for bears to bother with; they now appear to make a nice supplement to the diet.

Most interesting to us was that polar bears on Wrangle Island are now eating a good diet of salmon. Having seen many, many photos of brown bears on the Alaska Peninsula catching the salmon as the swim upriver to spawn in the place they were hatched, at first impression it’s a very bear-like behavior. But the fact is, that until the last few years, salmon were unknown on Wrangel Island. Since salmon instinctively return to the place of their spawning, why are they on Wrangel now?

Naturalists theorize that eons ago, in a previous warmer period on earth, salmon did spawn in the lakes on the island. The cooler temperatures since have prevented them from returning, until now. Guided by some ancient instinct, and following paths in warmer waters, the salmon now swim upriver to spawn where ancient ancestors once did, and as they do, the polar bears catch and eat them just as their brown cousins in Alaska do.

Bottom line, then, for the moment, is that the polar bears are showing ingenuity and adaptability as the temperature rises, and the ice conditions change. The world numerical population of bears is stable, and all but the Atlantic bears, found in and around northern Scandinavia, are showing some growth. Updates to the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts a current estimate of polar bear populations at 30,000, the highest on record. That’s five times the population number recorded in the 1950s, although some of the disparity may be due to methods of counting.

We did not find what we expected. That’s a good thing. For now, we are very happy to see our holiday friends looking fat, and happy.

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