Polar bears have been the poster animal for climate change for a long time, but recently, researchers were able to show what likely affects their survival most and what their fate could be, given different climate scenarios.


The very environment that is hostile and severe to most creatures is the same environment that allows these bears to survive.


“They’re amazing animals, you know, when you see a polar bear living in that environment, you’re just struck by what an evolutionary crucible they must have gone through to live and thrive in that kind of system,” said Todd Atwood, a research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.


But that system is changing — it’s getting warmer. The bears are threatened and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is hoping they can help keep them from becoming endangered.


“Globally, there’s all kinds of factors that can influence polar bear populations, so trying to understand which factors are most important to kind of manage and that we might have the highest probability of having, you know, success at keeping polar bear populations at a good place,” said Ryan Wilson, a USFWS wildlife biologist.


While it’s been known that loss of sea ice is a threat to polar bears, it wasn’t known until this summer how big of a threat it is.


“We looked at a variety of threats; loss of sea ice habitat was just one of many threats we looked at,” Atwood said. “We looked at things like exposure to disease and parasites, influence of human activities, like oil extraction and resource development, even recreational activities. And what we found was the overwhelming driver of future adverse outcomes is loss of sea ice habitat.”


Knowing loss of sea ice is the biggest threat to polar bears, Atwood and his team looked at three possible climate outcomes to see how the bears are likely to respond.


“Where we are now is pretty much right here, you know we’re kind of almost at an inflection point where we’re about to see these different pathways or emission scenarios begin to diverge,” Atwood explained.


Scientists link greenhouse gas emissions to melting sea ice. Atwood said either emissions go unchanged and the average global temperature continues to climb, emissions are dramatically reduced and temperatures begin to drop, or something in between happens.


The worse case scenario for polar bears was unabated emissions.


“Our models project that polar bears have a dominant probability of reaching a decreased or greatly decreased state by the end of the century,” Atwood said.


He said the other scenarios looked much better for long-term polar bear survival.


“The future isn’t written for polar bears,” Atwood clarified. “We still have some opportunities to insure the long-term persistence of bears, but it’s going to require mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Because that’s the only way to conserve sea ice habitat over the long term.”


Their persistence has a global impact.


“Around the globe, people view polar bears as this iconic arctic species, and so for that reason alone we would like to keep them around for future generations,” Wilson said. “But then on top of that, they do provide an important subsistence resource for northern Alaskan communities, and also globally — native communities around the circumpolar Arctic.”


It’s about more than just the polar bears. Both researchers say while the bears are important on their own, they’re also providing an indication of what’s to come globally as we begin to feel the effects of climate change.


KTVA 11’s Melissa Frey can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.


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