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Biologists observe disturbing pattern while monitoring polar bear weight: 'Another piece of evidence that really raises that alarm'

"As ice goes, the polar bears go."

"As ice goes, the polar bears go."

Photo Credit: iStock

Polar bears have been forced to adapt to shrinking levels of sea ice, but observations by biologists raised fears that their coping techniques aren't enough.

What's happening?

As Agence France-Presse reported for the Guardian, the study published in the journal Nature Communications found that all but one of the 20 polar bears being monitored over three years lost weight after the creatures spent more time on land during non-fasting periods.

"These findings really support the existing body of research that's out there, and this is another piece of evidence that really raises that alarm," Melanie Lancaster, a senior Arctic species specialist at the World Wildlife Fund, told the AFP. 

In a typical cycle, the ice serves as a tool for the bears to hunt ringed and bearded seals. However, as the Arctic has warmed at a rate that is two to four times faster than the rest of the planet, the number of ice-free days has risen by an additional three weeks from 1979 to 2015. 

Why is this important?

Researchers believe that bears are at greater risk for starvation when they spend extra time on land. Most of the bears being observed kept searching for food rather than conserving energy.

"Polar bears are creative, they're ingenious, you know, they will search the landscape for ways to try to survive and find food resources to compensate [for] their energy demands if they're motivated," U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist Anthony Pagano, the lead author of the study, told the AFP. 

These efforts seem to have fallen short, though. As detailed by the World Wildlife Fund, polar bears "need large amounts of fat to survive," which is why their ability to reach the seals, their primary food source, is so important to survival.   

As an indicator species, the polar bears also provide hints about the health of the ecosystem. When it is thrown out of balance, people and other wildlife are also impacted.

In January, Newsweek reported that changing global temperatures may have contributed to a recent deadly attack in Alaska, as human-bear interactions are becoming more frequent. 

What can be done to help? 

Pagano told the AFP that limiting the rise of temperatures to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, would probably save the bears.

"As ice goes, the polar bears go, and there is no other solution other than stopping ice loss," added John Whiteman, the chief research scientist at Polar Bears International.

Many countries, local governments, and companies are already transitioning to clean energy to reduce planet-warming pollution, the bulk of which is produced by the burning of coal, oil, and gas, but there are simple ways individuals can contribute as well.

Ditching single-use plastic products, unplugging money-sucking energy vampires, or donating to conservation efforts can help create a more hopeful tomorrow.      

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