Greenland | Discovery of a new population of polar bears

(Washington) The rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic poses a serious threat to the survival of polar bears, who use it as a platform to hunt seals.

Posted at 4:38pm

Issam Ahmed
Media Agency France

However, scientists have identified a new population of polar bears in southeastern Greenland using chunks of ice broken off from freshwater glaciers in the region.

Their discovery, described in a study published Thursday in the prestigious journal Scienceraises the possibility that at least a few specimens of this species could survive over the course of the century, knowing that Arctic sea ice should eventually disappear completely in the summer.

“One of the big questions is where polar bears can stay,” Kristin Laidre, a researcher at the University of Washington and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, told AFP. “I think bears in a place like this can tell us a lot about where that might be. »

She and her colleagues initially spent two years interviewing Inuit hunters. They then began their fieldwork, conducted between 2015 and 2021, in a region that has been little studied due to unpredictable weather, heavy snowfall and mountains.

isolated

The researchers spent a month there every spring, staying as close as possible to the polar bears’ habitat, a two-hour helicopter ride away. Fuel reserves had to be placed on the road in advance.

This population has a priori several hundred individuals. Bears have been fitted with satellite tracking devices and DNA samples have been collected either by capturing some of them or by using darts to take biopsies.

“This is the most genetically isolated population of polar bears on the planet,” said Beth Shapiro, study co-author and geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “We know that this population lived separately from other polar bears for at least several hundred years. »

Unlike their cousins, these polar bears tend to be homebodies and don’t go far to hunt.

Their isolation stems from the geography of where they live: a complex landscape of fjords at the southern tip of Greenland, far below the Arctic Circle, where there is no way out.

Impressive mountains to the west and the waters of the Denmark Strait to the east with a fast current along the coasts to the south.

“When they get swept up in this current, they jump off the ice and run back to their fjords,” explains Kristin Laidre. According to the researchers, some bears had to travel more than 150 kilometers to return home.

climate refugees?

While sea ice (seawater) provides a hunting platform for most of the Arctic’s approximately 26,000 polar bears, polar bears in south-eastern Greenland only have access to it for four months, between February and the end of May.

For the other eight months, they rely on chunks of freshwater ice to break away from the glaciers and land straight into the sea.

“The combination of fjords, high ice production, and the large ice reservoir of the Greenland Ice Sheet currently provides a continuous supply of ice from glaciers,” Twila Moon, co-author, said in a statement to Learn.

Much research remains to be done on the polar bears in this part of Greenland. Measurements have shown that adult females are slightly smaller than average and appear to have fewer young. But it’s difficult to draw conclusions in the absence of long-term data.

Kristin Laidre warns against placing too much hope in this study. Polar bears — iconic animals in their own right, but also a valuable resource for people in the region — will not be saved without urgent action to combat climate change.

But this population may have a better chance of survival than the others. And other regions of Greenland have glaciers that end right in the sea and could become small climate refuges in the future.

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