Polar bears and global warming often go hand in hand. When we think of climate change, many of us imagine melting icebergs and the warming Arctic—aka habitat loss for polar bears. But those polar bears seem so far away, making it easy to forget how their lives are being impacted.
But the truth is: Climate change isn't just impacting the way we humans live day-to-day. It's impacting wildlife across the globe. Tigers are endangered, facing major habitat degradation. Sea turtles, Asian elephants, cheetahs, and more are also facing the effects of climate change firsthand. Many animals are being forced to adapt in order to survive, but not every species can keep up.
Unfortunately, polar bears fall under the category of animals that are in danger. Here's everything you need to know, from whether they're actually endangered to what you can do to help.
Are Polar Bears Endangered?
Are polar bears endangered? Not yet. But they're vulnerable, meaning they're facing a high risk of extinction. There are about 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears in the Arctic wilderness, and they can be found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Norway.
But according to a study published in Nature Climate Change, polar bear populations will decrease—and even disappear—by 2100.
The study cites "unmitigated greenhouse gas emissions" as the leading factor impacting polar bear populations. And while the study doesn't predict the extinction of all polar bear subpopulations, it does recognize that some subpopulations will completely disappear. Others will drastically decrease.
However, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, two-thirds of polar bear populations could be extinct by 2050. Again, this would be a result of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
So while polar bears aren't endangered, they're still threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and our changing climate system. Let's take a look at what is specifically threatening our beloved polar bear populations.
What Is Threatening Polar Bears?
1. Habitat Loss
According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Arctic is heating up at a rapid rate—twice as fast as any other region. And because temperatures are rising, Arctic sea ice is melting. So polar bears are steadily losing their habitats at a rate of 14% per decade.
Plus, when the ice melts, polar bear habitats aren't only lost; they're also fragmented. This means polar bears can be displaced or separated from other populations. And when habitats are lost, polar bears are forced to search for a new home. That could mean polar bears are entering coastal villages, putting residents at risk for conflict.
The main cause for the increase in temperature is global warming, which is the overall heating of the Earth's climate system. And why is the Earth's surface heating up? Greenhouse gas emissions and increased pollution from human activities.
2. Food Loss
Human-made pollution as a result of tourism, industrialization, and shipping is a factor impacting polar bear populations. Specifically, oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. Oil drilling impacts polar bears in a number of ways, including pollution, increased temperatures, and habitat loss. But there's more.
Oil drilling pollutes polar bear environments directly, and the chances of an oil spill are increased. And the pollution could impact other animal populations—aka prey polar bears feed on. This disrupts the food chain, contaminating both prey and polar bears alike.
Plus, oil contamination could kill prey populations like seals, walruses, and fish, leaving polar bears without food.
3. Decreasing Reproduction Rates
Additionally, with an increase in temperatures in the Arctic, polar bears have less time to hunt for food—and less food overall. Studies show female polar bears are losing weight, and litter sizes are decreasing. And not only are reproduction rates decreasing, but cub survival rates are also decreasing.
In a 2020 study published in Ecological Applications, it was found that overall body condition declined for polar bears across sex, age, and reproductive classes. This decline correlates with sea ice availability. As a result of the decline in body and reproductive condition, a decrease in litter size correlated with maternal conditions.
So both habitat loss and food loss are leading to an overall decrease in polar bear populations. And the larger issue is global warming and climate change, which are impacting how polar bears live day-to-day.
How to Help Polar Bears
1. Adopt a Polar Bear
Virtual adoptions are one way to help polar bear populations. The proceeds from your adoption—or even just a donation—go toward conservation efforts, advocacy, and education. Check out WWF's page for adopting polar bears or Polar Bears International for more information.
2. Live More Sustainably
While climate anxiety may make many of us feel helpless, there are still small actions you can take that benefit the planet and the life that lives upon it. Choosing to live more sustainably—whether that means reducing plastic waste, recycling, or conserving energy—decreases your carbon footprint.
And decreasing your carbon footprint mitigates your personal contribution to global warming and climate change. Your small actions add up to a much larger impact.
3. Stay Educated
Keeping up with current conservation efforts and government involvement in the fight against climate change can help you get involved. Not only can it help you make more sustainable choices in your everyday life, but it can also help you advocate for change.
Whether that means signing petitions or reaching out to government officials to share your concern for polar bears, wildlife, and climate change, staying educated about climate change issues is vital.