I spent a week in a ship around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard between 4 and 10 May 2018. This was a truly wonderful experience. We saw countless glaciers, thousands of birds, dozens of walruses, many seals and a handful of polar bears. Those bears were almost all staying on the sea ice at the far end inside fjords. They were uninterested in us, and looked mostly like yellow dots against an icy background.
We were just guests in their kingdom, and I felt already immensely privileged knowing that they are there, even so far away.
Only one bear was visible from a “photographic distance”. It looked like he was stranded on Karl-XII island, in the very north of Svalbard (Karl XII-øya in Norwegian). The sea ice had already retreated a few hundred kilometres further east and north.
Polar bears are good swimmers, but the distance to cover to find the ice was already too large even for the strongest bear (and this one was still young and definitely not the strongest).
So while waiting for the sea ice to come back in the following winter, this polar bear had to find his food on this tiny island. We could observe him wandering near the coast of the island before climbing on steep slopes towards where the birds were nesting.
So what happened to the sea ice?
You see, normally, at the time of year of our expedition (first half of May), Karl-XII island should be surrounded by sea ice. Below, I gathered all the sea ice charts from the Norwegian Ice Service on this day of 7 May since 2011 (click to enlarge):
When looking at all these images side by side, it becomes obvious that 2018 is an exceptionally bad year with respect to sea ice.
Data is available since 1998 on the website. There does not appear to be other years with as little sea ice as during our trip in May 2018. Of course 20 years of data is small from a statistical point of view. However, it would also be dishonest to refuse acknowledging that the situation is currently changing.
Is this polar bear stuck on the island because of climate change?
The short answer is: yes most probably. But let’s elaborate, shall we?
From a scientific and statistic point of view, it is impossible to link one single situation to a global trend such as climate change. Even National Geographic made this mistake in December 2017, by linking the footage of a starving polar bear without actually having proof of this. After much turmoil in the general news media, they issued a statement in June 2018 stating that “it is impossible to know why the polar bear pictured was starving. An earlier version of the video went too far in suggesting that climate change was responsible”.
I do not want to make the same mistake so obviously I don’t title this article “starving polar bear stuck on small island in Svalbard”. That would be a click bait and simply wrong.
Having said that, anyone can observe the trends without having to be a scientist. We also listen and trust our expedition leaders (Fredrik Granath, Jens Wikström) who have spent the past decade if not more in the area. With all this, we can speculate with a high level of confidence that this bear did get stuck there after being surprised by a premature retreat of the ice.
Following other expeditions on social media, reading articles by other guides, you will notice everywhere in summer an increasing number of bears stuck on land, instead of being further north in the pack ice.
Polar bears eating birds and eggs is something that has been frequently documented. However, staying on a rocky island and having such a diet is certainly not the first choice of a polar bear. A polar bear needs to eat on average a seal every week. In order to catch those seals, the polar bear needs sea ice as a hunting platform. Obviously, birds and eggs don’t have the same nutritious value at all.
What can we do?
All we can hope now is that this beautiful bear will manage to survive the many months of summer until the sea ice comes back. Hopefully he will still have enough energy by then to catch seals to go through another winter.
I feel overwhelmed with sadness ever time I look at this last picture above or think about this guy. This polar bear is watching us from his cliff and is imploring us to change our habits to help preserve his kingdom.
We can all do something to limit our impact on our planet.
Every little thing counts.
Start today if you haven’t already.