This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.
Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.
By Neil Hamilton
The amazing sight of 5 polar bears waiting around a large Laptev walrus rookery has given way to a more analytical look at what is actually happening there. We have noticed that almost all the bears are in relatively poor condition, and appear to be injured. What is going on here?
It’s pretty difficult to tell without spending a lot of time here or examining the bears more closely, which I certainly don’t want to do: a safe polar bear is one that is a long way away! But it is possible to piece together at least parts of the puzzle.
Firstly, we know that as a result of climate change there is no sea ice for many hundreds of kilometres from here. It now melts early, and returns late each year. That means that there are no ringed seals (the main food of the polar bear) around. The bears have probably been trapped at the coast since the sea ice disappeared in June or early July, wandering around looking for anything they can scavenge. They are faced with the inevitability of spending the next few months with no reliable food source. We know from several studies that bears in this position lose huge amounts of body weight, which translates directly into reproductive success: less weight, less surviving cubs next year.
Secondly, we know that a fully grown walrus is more than a match for a bear. I’ve seen many accounts of walrus fighting off bear attacks, and anyone who works on walrus can tell you how fast they can move when they want to. They might look like bags of blubber on land, but those bags can move like a rocket over short distances. And in water they are even more dangerous, thinking nothing of attacking a Zodiac. They are not known as ‘the hippo of the Arctic’ for nothing.
Thirdly, the injuries to the bears looked like puncture wounds, and several were in pairs about 30cm apart. many were on the back or the hind quarters of the bears, leaving substantial blood stains on the fur.
I’m sure you’re getting the picture by know. Starving bears, a walrus colony with young, and not a seal in sight. It might not be McDonalds, but the possibility of some tender young walrus just could be worth a tusk or two in the rump.
That’s climate change in the Arctic.