Polar bear conservation nonprofit Polar Bears International is currently tracking and filming polar bears near Churchill, Canada. The Arctic bears have gathered there to wait for sea ice to form at Hudson Bay, which will make it possible for them to hunt their favorite meal: seals.
There’s a livestream of these beautiful bears waiting for the ice, which you can check in on below.
There are about 36,000 polar bears in the wild, with 20 distinct groups (one discovered just this year) being monitored by researchers. For polar bears to survive in extremely cold conditions and to reproduce, they need to eat an abundance of fat. It’s like being on a permanent keto diet. They mainly hunt and eat ringed and bearded seals, but this isn’t possible if there isn’t an abundance of sea ice for the bears to hunt on. As the climate crisis is shifting weather patterns and contributing to factors like warmer temperatures in the Arctic, regions in the great white north are seeing less sea ice. Less ice means that the polar bears must travel longer distances in hopes of finding enough food for the long winters.
This is especially alarming for bears in Northeast Canada. The bears in the Western Hudson Bay area are predicted to become one of the first groups of polar bears at risk of disappearing due to climate change. Their numbers have decreased by 30% since the 1980s, according to PBI.
Alysa McCall, a staff scientist and the director of conservation at PBI, explained that polar bears are a critical example of how a changing climate can increase human-wildlife conflict in the Arctic. This happens all over the world as natural habitats disappear, driving desperate animals to unusual behaviors. In Canada, it means that polar bears are going hungry and looking for food in human trash cans, increasingly coming into contact with people.
“The ice-free period is about three to four weeks longer than it used to be in the 1980s already. And what this translates to is less time hunting for polar bears and less nutrition for them,” McCall told Earther. “The worst-case scenario, of course, is that a human gets injured or killed by a polar bear. And while that’s rare, it does happen.” In 2017, for example, a woman was nearly killed by a polar bear as she walked home from a Halloween party.
Polar bears in Canada have been killed in some of these human-wildlife interactions in the past. To combat this, PBI researchers have spent years developing the “bear-dar” system, designed to alert people when polar bears come too close to their homes. Researchers are teaching the system what polar bears look like by using artificial intelligence. “We can then set up a system in a community. It can be scanning the landscape, and it can give people a warning when it sees a polar bear,” McCall explained. “With advanced warning, people can get inside.”
PBI researchers have also partnered with scientists at 3M to test the “Burr on Fur” project, which puts tracking devices on a polar bear’s fur, much like how dried burr pods stick to an animal’s fur. Researchers have traditionally put collars on polar bears to learn more about their migration patterns, but this doesn’t work on bears of all sizes and in all conditions.
McCall hopes the nostalgia that polar bears bring up for so many people helps fuel a drive to protect the bears and their natural habitats. “To lose them would really just be a tragedy, both ecologically and emotionally. They’re such an incredible species,” she said. “They really capture the hearts and minds of people all over the world that may never see them in person… They’re absolutely an animal worth fighting for.”