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Newborn polar bears are able to survive the bone-chilling Arctic winter — where temperatures can fall to negative 30 degrees Celsius or lower — by seeking warmth in their mothers’ dens. However, new research claims that if current trends continue, cubs along Alaska’s northern coast might perish outside instead.
The study, presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union this month, suggests that mother polar bears may no longer be able to locate the deep snowbanks they need to dig dens by the end of this century.
“They need that habitat to give birth,” Megan Liu, a research intern who presented the findings, told Inside Science. Their analysis indicates that “if we don’t restrict our emissions, very soon, within the century, there’s going to be an extended amount of time when there’s no available denning habitat for the polar bears.”
Their work focuses on the Beaufort Sea coast, where declines in sea ice are hitting bears hard — as previous research has shown.
A polar bear is seen in the image above.
Although scientists have been aware of the impact climate change has on polar bears for years, the majority of the studies have focused on losing their sea ice hunting grounds, Steven Amstrup, who oversaw polar bear research for the U.S. Geological Survey for three decades, explained to Inside Science.
Some areas of the Arctic are warming at a slower rate than others, but Armstrup, who was not involved with the study, said the trend could impact areas besides the northern coast of Alaska.
“Ultimately every place is going to be warmer,” Amstrup told Inside Science. “If we don’t halt global warming, ultimately all polar bear habitat will be impacted.”