Uncertainties in forecasting the response of polar bears to global climate change

By:  and 
Edited by: Andy Butterworth



Several sources of uncertainty affect how precisely the future status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) can be forecasted. Foremost are unknowns about the future levels of global greenhouse gas emissions, which could range from an unabated increase to an aggressively mitigated reduction. Uncertainties also arise because different climate models project different amounts and rates of future warming (and sea ice loss)—even for the same emission scenario. There are also uncertainties about how global warming could affect the Arctic Ocean’s food web, so even if climate models project the presence of sea ice in the future, the availability of polar bear prey is not guaranteed. Under a worst-case emission scenario in which rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unabated to century’s end, the uncertainties about polar bear status center on a potential for extinction. If the species were to persist, it would likely be restricted to a high-latitude refugium in northern Canada and Greenland—assuming a food web also existed with enough accessible prey to fuel weight gains for surviving onshore during the most extreme years of summer ice melt. On the other hand, if emissions were to be aggressively mitigated at the levels proposed in the Paris Climate Agreement, healthy polar bear populations would probably continue to occupy all but the most southern areas of their contemporary summer range. While polar bears have survived previous warming phases—which indicate some resiliency to the loss of sea ice habitat—what is certain is that the present pace of warming is unprecedented and will increasingly expose polar bears to historically novel stressors.

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Uncertainties in forecasting the response of polar bears to global climate change
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-46994-2_25
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology MFEB
Description 11 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Title Marine animal welfare
First page 463
Last page 473
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