When a polar bear showed up in the Russian village of Tilichiki on the Kamchatka Peninsula, surprised residents threw fish to the “exhausted” animal. Environmentalists say climate change likely forced the bear to look for food hundreds of miles from its normal habitat, but it’s possible the bear simply got stranded on a drifting ice floe. While not as gut-wrenching as the video of a dying bear that went viral in 2017, the video of the Russian bear shows an animal that “can barely move” by the time it swims to shore.
Polar bears normally live in Arctic regions with sea ice, which they use as a platform to hunt for seals. But this bear ended up hundreds of miles south of its home (and food source) in the Chukotka region bordering the Chukchi Sea. Authorities hope to return the lost bear to Chukotka by helicopter.
Surface air temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as the rest of the globe. For the past five years, they have broken all previous records since 1900. Arctic warming is not only melting the sea ice on which polar bears depend, but also shortening the season during which they can hunt for seals and accumulate the fat they need to make it through the ice-free summer.
Making matters even worse, National Geographic reports that seals and other animals eaten by bears are themselves dependent on a food chain that has at its foundation tiny organisms called zooplankton that feed on sea-ice algae. Like soil in a forest, the report says, sea ice appears to be essential to the Arctic ecosystem. Regardless of whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing, polar bears will not be able to survive in the wild if their habitat and food disappear.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for 2019 on March 13. This year tied with 2007 for the seventh-lowest maximum since the center began collecting satellite data 40 years ago. “While this is not a record low year for the Arctic sea ice maximum extent, the last four years have been the lowest in our record, reflecting a downward trend in winter sea ice extent,” said NSIDC senior research scientist Walt Meier. “This is just another indicator of the rapid changes that are occurring in the Arctic due to climate change.”