A group of polar bears, isolated for hundreds of years, survive in an atypical environment and offer hope in the face of global warming

Polar bears are among the animals hardest hit by climate change, and experts say the species could become extinct in the next few decades as the Arctic ice sheet melts. However, researchers in a NASA-funded study found an isolated population of polar bears in southern Greenland that survive even though ice platforms are missing from the area for most of the year, writes The Guardian.

Researchers say that this group of polar bears, which appears to be isolated for hundreds of years from other polar bear populations, has withstood ice from glaciers that are exposed to the sea.

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Tingmiarmiut Fjord in the polar bear population of southeastern Greenland, spring (left) and summer (right). In the summer image, the white dots represent ice platforms that have detached from the Heimdal Glacier and other glaciers in the fjord, which bears use to hunt. The images were taken on August 8, 2021 (summer) and April 6, 2022 (spring).

According to scientists, although a sharp decline is expected among the polar bear population in the Arctic, this isolated group offers hope, especially since the current conditions in south-eastern Greenland are similar to those forecast for the Arctic by the end of the century.

“I think we can learn something about the rare place where a small number of polar bears could live when the Arctic is without ice,” said Kristin Laidre, lead author of the study, published in the journal Science.

Polar bear in Greenland. Photo source: Profimedia Images

Laidre and her colleagues write in Science about the movement, genetics and demographics of the bear sub-population living on the east coast of Greenland, noting that there are two distinct groups, one living further north and the other living in the south of the island.

The team says the southern group meets the criteria for a new sub-population of polar bears, noting that the animals are the most genetically isolated specimens in the Arctic region. Their movements are limited by the relief of the area.

“They are geographically, genetically and demographically isolated, which means they don’t interact with other bears,” says Laidre. “From time to time, there is an immigrant who adds genetic diversity to the group, but because they are so geographically isolated there is no significant genetic input.”

At first glance, the conditions in southeast Greenland may seem unsuitable for polar bears, because sea ice is present only a few months a year. But as glaciers in the fjords move toward the sea, breaking ice can give rise to ice shelves, giving bears what Laidre calls “floating relief” from which bears can hunt all year round.

“What we do know about polar bears is that they can’t survive if they only have ice in the water for 100 days a year,” she says. “The reason they can live in this isolated environment is because they have extra ice platforms.”

It is not the first time polar bears have been found in other glacial areas, but the new group – which has several hundred members – is unusual because it has the traits needed for survival.

However, Kristin Laidre says such habitats are rare and likely to change due to global warming, and the small bear genetic pool in southern Greenland could become problematic if migrant bears cease to occur.

Editor: VM

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