New polar bear cubs a good sign, but species still in danger, experts say

On Norway’s second largest island, there was a precious sight this week: a female bear with her two cubs, who are just days out of hibernation.

Scientists who track these bears were able to ascertain that the mother bear is 11 years old and in good health, something that is excellent news considering the threats facing the species right now.

Because while the ice sheet these bears all depend on is in better shape in 2022 than in previous years, the long term trend remains the same — the ice, which they rely on for hunting and travelling, is melting at a faster rate than it did historically, and the winters are not replacing it.

“What we think is that in the future, if you get less and less sea ice and more and more bears, at some stage they will start struggling and you get fewer bears,” Dr. Jon Aars, a research biologist at Norwegian Polar Institute, told CTV News.

Researchers come to this region of Norway every year to monitor the health and size of the polar bear population.

The retreating sea ice means they’ll have less food in the future, which will make it harder for pregnant females to return to the islands where they need to give birth.

“One very important thing for the bears is that when they give birth to cubs, they need to be on land, so they have to go to the islands every time they give birth,” Aars said.

While a lot of sea ice melts and freezes with the seasons every year, there has historically been a certain percentage of perennial ice to keep the Arctic covered — sea ice that survives seasonal changes. However, there has been a dramatic decrease in perennial sea ice coverage over the last three decades, something scientists believe is connected to human-driven climate change.

These trends spell danger for polar bears.

In 2020, a study published in the journal Nature which studied polar bear demographics between 1979-2016 suggested that the species could vanish within a century if greenhouse gas emissions remain high.

Currently, the global population of polar bears is estimated to be around 26,000, and experts believe the numbers in Canada’s north are not faring well.

“It’s Hudson Bay, it's Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, those areas, mostly in northern Canada where polar bears have historically had to come off the ice. Now they're having to stay off the ice for a much longer period,” Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, Chief Scientist of Polar Bears International, told CTV News.

Studies have shown that it might take 15 years for global temperatures to stabilize, and then another 15 for sea ice to respond.

“We've got our work cut out for us,” Amstrup said. “We need to act quickly if we want to take advantage of the opportunity that we still have, to save polar bears over much of their range.

“The future, if we continue on the course that we're on, doesn't look good for polar bears.”