Two news stories today offer a disheartening look at the future of Arctic wildlife.
First, the Scientific American blog reports that work by biologist Andrew Derocher of the University of Alberta demonstrates that polar bears could disappear from Hudson Bay in as little as ten years. Some of his other work shows a relatively more gradual collapse 20-30 years away, yet in either case, the extinction of the polar bear in Hudson Bay seems imminent. It’s ironic that people are worrying about polar bears encroaching on towns and eating their garbage, when soon, that threat could completely dissipate. In this northern region of Canada, polar bears have lost 25% of their average weight over the past 25 years. The reason the bears’ weight is declining is because for the past couple of decades, the polar bears have spent one extra week on land fasting than on sea ice. Every day spent on land results in two pounds of weight lost.
“One of the major issues we’ve found is that when we’ve looked through the empirical data we can see there’s been a gradual decline in body condition that dates right back into the 1980s. And we can now correlate that very nicely with the loss of sea ice in this ecosystem. And one of the things we found was that the changes that could come in this population could happen very dramatically and a lot of the change could come within a single year if you just ended up with an earlier melt of sea ice.”
The nail in the coffin would be five years in a row of low sea ice conditions, which would force polar bears onto land, away from rich marine food sources and resulting in low and even nonexistent reproduction.
Second, the Audubon reports that migratory birds which summer in the tundras of northern Canada and Alaska and winter in Central and South America could be at risk when they fly south in the coming months. According to Surfbirds, species that will be affected include varieties of sandpipers and yellowlegs. Many birds stop at the Gulf, which Audubon President Frank Gill likened to the “Grand Central Station for the birds of the Eastern United States and especially the Mississippi Flyway.” Oil could coat their feathers and food will be sparse. Worse, multiple generations of birds will be affected, including the adult ones who will be first to arrive, and the first-year chicks.
To remedy the situation, counting the birds and assessing the risks posed by the oil spill will be the first step. Cleaning up areas struck by the oil slick on land as quickly and thoroughly as possible will also be important. Finally, rescue efforts by volunteers will likely have to be made by birds that haven’t made it to one of the clean areas.
“For Hudson Polar Bears, the End is Already in Sight,” Yale Environment 360