A polar bear looks into the camera lens
A polar bear photographed in Churchill, Canada, in November 2021. Erinn Hermsen/Polar Bears International

New research from the University of Washington and Polar Bears International in Bozeman, Montana, quantifies the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and the survival of polar bear populations. The paper, published online Aug. 31 in Science, combines past research and new analysis to provide a quantitative link between greenhouse gas emissions and polar bear survival rates.

A warming Arctic is limiting polar bears’ access to sea ice, which the bears use as a hunting platform. In ice-free summer months the bears must fast. While in a worst-case scenario the adult bears will die, before then they will lose the ability to successfully raise cubs.

“Until now, scientists hadn’t offered the quantitative evidence to relate greenhouse gas emissions to population decline,” said second author Cecilia Bitz, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences.

Bitz did data analysis for the new report that shows a direct link between cumulative greenhouse gas emissions and polar bear demographic changes. The link largely explains recent declining trends in some polar bear subpopulations, such as in western Hudson Bay. The paper also has policy implications because it allows a formal assessment of how future proposed actions would impact polar bears.

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