The rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic poses a serious threat to the survival of polar bears, which use it as a platform to hunt seals. But scientists have identified a new population of these plantigrades in southeastern Greenland that uses chunks of ice breaking off from freshwater glaciers in the region. Their discovery, described in a study published Thursday, June 16 in the journal Sciencegives hope that at least a few representatives of this species may survive during the century.
While sea ice (seawater) provides a hunting platform for most of the Arctic’s approximately 26,000 polar bears, they only have access to it in southeast Greenland for four months, between February and the end of May. During the other eight months, these bears therefore use pieces of freshwater ice, which break off from glaciers and end up directly in the sea.
“One of the big questions is where the polar bears are going to be able to stay”knowing that the Arctic sea ice should eventually disappear completely in summer, explained to AFP Kristin Laidre, scientist at the University of Washington and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. “I think bears living in a place like this can teach us a lot. [sur là où] this could be the case.”
This new group has a priori several hundred individuals. Bears were fitted with satellite tracking devices and DNA samples were collected, either by capturing some of them or using darts to take biopsies. “We know that this population lived separately from other polar bears for at least several hundred years.”underlines Beth Shapiro, co-author of the study and geneticist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Their isolation stems from the geography of where they live: a complex landscape of fjords on the southern tip of Greenland, well below the Arctic Circle, with nowhere to go.
Kristin Laidre warns that we must beware of placing too many hopes in this study. Polar bears will not be saved without urgent action to combat climate change. Nevertheless, this population may have a better chance of survival than the others. And other regions of Greenland have glaciers ending directly in the sea. They could, in the future, become small climatic refuges.