Polar Bears, J. Lyle
© J. Lyle

Polar Bear

Threats to Polar Bears

Less than a decade ago, most populations of polar bears were considered healthy, even growing. But climate change is impacting the population of this Arctic icon. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear in Alaska as threatened. It was the first marine mammal listing under the Endangered Species Act chalked up primarily to climate change. Polar bear populations could decline by as much as a third by mid-century due to disappearing Arctic sea ice and possibly by as much as 50% by 2050.

Climate Change

Often referred to as the largest land carnivores in the world, polar bears are actually marine mammals, and spend much of their time on Arctic sea ice, often hundreds of miles from land. Climate change is melting their icy habitat, making it increasingly difficult to travel, hunt and raise their young. The sea ice they depend on melts earlier each spring and forms later each fall.

Oil Spills

Oil and gas development also pose a major risk to polar bears. The threat of oil spills come not only from oil and gas development but increasingly from vessels transiting through the Bering Strait and Arctic. There is still no proven method of cleaning up oil in broken sea-ice conditions. An oil spill would not only harm polar bears and other Arctic marine wildlife, but could also deplete their prey and contaminate their habitat.