A study published Monday in Nature Climate Change shows that polar bears could be nearly extinct by the year 2100. That is, if the current trajectory of global warming persists.
Polar bears have long been the poster-animal for the fight against global warming. It makes sense that these beautiful creatures would be one of the most at-risk groups on the planet. After all, they are completely reliant on sea ice and arctic temperatures for survival.
Now there is data that shows just how close our actions have brought us to the extinction of this vital member of the animal kingdom.
80 years from now – a single human lifetime – might be all this species has left. Rising global temperatures have already caused there to be significantly less sea ice, which polar bears use as hunting grounds for seals.
With sea ice hunting grounds available for less time each year, polar bears are struggling to put on enough weight to make it through longer and longer fasting periods. Female bears with cubs are the most at risk.
These dangers are based on the calculation that the surface of the Earth will rise an average of 3.3 C by the year 2100. 3.3 degrees Celsius isn’t even close to the worst case scenario. On our current trajectory, we may even outpace that mark.
Why Polar Bears Matter
Polar bears are essential to the health of the Arctic. They are known as a keystone species because so many other animals rely on their behavior. Mainly, polar bears are important because they hunt seals.
Scavenger species like the arctic fox, snowy owl, and other arctic birds rely on that hunting to feed themselves. Also, since polar bears control the seal population, they prevent seals from over hunting fish and crustaceans, which is helpful to humans.
What a 3.3 C Temperature Rise Really Means
By the year 2100, if we don’t get our act together as a planet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures could rise 3.3 degrees Celsius on average. In fact, it could even be much worse than that. This map shows how much each part of the world has already warmed since pre-industrial levels, and how much it is projected to warm by the year 2100.
Where I live, in Nashville TN, warming over the next 80 years is projected to be between 1.7 and 5.5 C. As you can see from the yellow part of the image above, the farther north you go, the more you can see the effects of global warming. Parts of northern Greenland are projected to rise between 3.4 and 11.1 C in the same time period.
If you’re American like me, 3.3 C might not sound like much, but that’s 38 degrees Fahrenheit. The high in Nashville today is 98 F. That means, with a 3.3 C rise, the temperature could be 136 F. According to this article by Live Science, humans can only withstand 140 F for 10 minutes before dying of hyperthermia (overheating). So, yeah we’re screwed. Polar bears, which live in all the yellow shaded parts of the map above, are much worse off.
Unfortunately, polar bears are not the only animals in danger from global warming – not by a long shot. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published a study in February of 2020 that found that one-third of all plant and animal species could be extinct by 2070 as a result of global warming.
Species like the golden toad and the Bramble Cay melomys (both pictured above) are two animals that have already gone extinct due to global warming, and many more are critically endangered.
The Good News
Believe it or not, there is some good news. Scientists say that if we can reverse the effects of global warming, arctic ice would return. It would require a huge shift from our current global warming trajectory, and even then the ice might not return quickly enough to save some arctic species, but there’s still hope for the polar bears.