Receding ice leaves Canada’s polar bears at rising risk

Friday, Oct 21, 2022

CHURCHILL, Canada: Sprawled on rocky ground far from sea ice, a lone Canadian polar bear sits under a dazzling sun, his white fur utterly useless as camouflage.

It´s mid-summer on the shores of Hudson Bay and life for the enormous male has been moving in slow motion, far from the prey that keeps him alive: seals. This is a critical time for the region´s polar bears.

Every year from late June when the bay ice disappears -- shrinking until it dots the blue vastness like scattered confetti -- they must move onto shore to begin a period of forced fasting. But that period is lasting longer and longer as temperatures rise -- putting them in danger´s way.

Once on solid ground, the bears “typically have very few options for food,” explains Geoff York, a biologist with Polar Bears International (PBI). York, an American, spends several weeks each year in Churchill, a small town on the edge of the Arctic in the northern Canadian province of Manitoba. There, he follows the fortunes of the endangered animals.

This is one of the best spots from which to study life on Hudson Bay, though transportation generally requires either an all-terrain vehicle adapted to the rugged tundra, or an inflatable boat for navigating the bay´s waters.

York invited an AFP team to join him on an expedition in early August. Near the impressively large male bear lazing in the sun is a pile of fishbones -- nowhere near enough to sustain this 11-foot (3.4-meter), 1,300-pound (590-kilo) beast.

“There could be a beluga whale carcass they might be able to find, (or a) naive seal near shore, but generally they´re just fasting,” York says. “They lose nearly a kilogram of body weight every day that they´re on land.” Climate warming is affecting the Arctic three times as fast as other parts of the world -- even four times, according to some recent studies.