Climate change warning: polar bears' search for food is becoming more desperate

Polar bears' bodies work 60% harder than thought — which makes surviving climate change even tougher

Shot by Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier of the nonprofit group Sea Legacy, and published on National Geographic in early December, the video ignited a firestorm of debate about what scientists know, and don't know, about the impacts of global warming on polar bears. They also used metabolic tracers that helped them determine how much energy the bears were expending.

"You're talking a pretty unbelievable amount of mass to lose", said US Geological Survey wildlife biologist Anthony Pagano, lead author of the study. By the fall, the young seals are older and wiser, and polar bears are not able to catch as many.

A polar bear tests the strength of thin sea ice.

Of course this presumes that the bears can find the seals in the first place. Then the bear bites it on the neck and drags it onto the ice.

The ice cover in the Arctic grows in the winter and melts in the summer.

Two years into the 10-year, five-nation Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, action is slow, says the World Wildlife Fund in a "scorecard" that measures progress on carrying out promises made in 2015. He's been studying locomotion and metabolism in polar bears, including captive bears at the Oregon Zoo, for more than 10 years. Global Positioning System video-camera collars were applied to solitary adult female polar bears for 8 to 12 days in April, 2014-2016. Blood and urine samples were also taken. It is more than the previously estimated level of calories that these predators needed to stay healthy.

During the test, researchers saw about half of hunting bears lost 10 percent of their body weight in just over a week. One bear that managed to catch some seals lost a negligible amount of weight. This bear even leapt into the sea in a failed attempt to catch a seal swimming by. The remote location has made it hard for scientists to study the bears' movement and activities until now. "It shows that polar bears are more like the big cats-lions and tigers- predatory carnivores with high energy metabolisms", Amstrup said.

The bear videos showed researchers all sorts of usually private aspects of polar bear life, including courtship and hunting. The species is categorized as "vulnerable".

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Catching enough to eat isn't the only challenge polar bears face. The agency's most recent population estimate suggests the bears have declined by about 40 percent over the past decade. Four of these populations are considered to be declining.

The Beaufort Sea has seen dramatic losses in sea ice. Five populations are thought to be stable and there's not enough known about the others to judge.

But certainly, vanishing sea ice makes the predators' hunt for seals more hard. The researchers went there and observed the bears. As it recedes, it gets farther away from the continental shelf, shallow waters that produce prey for the bears. Eventually they start losing muscle, hurting their chances of hunting success, which can lead to a downward spiral.

"In the Beaufort Sea we are seeing that the ice is retreating much further to the north than it had historically", Mr Pagano said.

Their metabolic rate was found to about 60 percent higher than was previously thought, and to meet that high requirement of energy, they need to consume a lot of fat-rich prey, like seals.

"The chain of logic that everyone is concerned about is that the melting of sea ice reduces the amount of time that bears get to spend on sea ice in the productive regions where seals are concentrated", said Professor Whiteman, who wrote a commentary in Science. One female bear Griffen studied swam 426 miles over nine days.

In other areas, such as Hudson Bay, most bears move onto land when the sea ice retreats. While the decline has been easy to observe, the causes have been more elusive, given the remote areas the bears inhabit. "This is what a starving bear looks like".

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