Shaky oasis for some polar bears found, but not for species

Jun 15, 2022, 11:01 PM | Updated: Jun 21, 2022, 6:49 pm
An adult female polar bear, left, and two 1-year-old cubs walk over snow-covered freshwater glacier...

An adult female polar bear, left, and two 1-year-old cubs walk over snow-covered freshwater glacier ice in Southeast Greenland in March 2015. With limited sea ice, these Southeast Greenland polar bears use freshwater icebergs spawned from the shrinking Greenland ice sheet as makeshift hunting grounds, according to a study in journal Science released Thursday, June 16. (Kristin Laidre via AP)

(Kristin Laidre via AP)

With the polar bear species in a fight for survival because of disappearing Arctic sea ice, a new distinct group of Greenland bears seem to have stumbled on an icy oasis that might allow a small remote population to “hang on.”

But it’s far from “a life raft” for the endangered species that has long been a symbol of climate change, scientists said.

A team of scientists tracked a group of a few hundred polar bears in Southeast Greenland that they show are genetically distinct and geographically separate from others, something not considered before. But what’s really distinct is that these bears manage to survive despite only having 100 days a year when there’s sea ice to hunt seals from. Elsewhere in the world, polar bears need at least 180 days, usually more, of sea ice for them to use as their hunting base. When there’s no sea ice bears often don’t eat for months.

With limited sea ice, which is frozen ocean water, these Southeast Greenland polar bears use freshwater icebergs spawned from the shrinking Greenland ice sheet as makeshift hunting grounds, according to a study in Thursday’s journal Science. However, scientists aren’t sure if they are thriving because they are smaller and have fewer cubs than other polar bear populations.

“These polar bears are adapted to living in an environment that looks like the future,” said study lead author Kristin Laidre, a polar bear biologist at the University of Washington, who over nine years tracked, collared and tested the all-white bears usually from a helicopter hovering the white snow and ice backdrop. “But most bears in the Arctic don’t have glacial ice. They don’t have access to this. So it can’t be taken out of context like somehow this is like a life raft for polar bears around the Arctic. It’s not. Greenland is unique.”

“We project large declines of polar bears across the Arctic and this study does not change that very important message,” Laidre said. “What this study does is show that we find this isolated group living in this unique place… We’re looking at where in the Arctic polar bears can as a species hang on, where they might persist.”

The freshwater ice will keep coming off the ice sheet for centuries giving limited hope that this is “a place that polar bears might continue to survive” but it’s separate from an overall trend of sea ice loss in the summer because of emissions of heat-trapping gases from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, said National Snow and Ice Data Center deputy lead scientist Twila Moon, a study co-author.

These bears hunt on the fresh glacial ice that has more peaks and valleys than the flatter sea ice, often in house- or car-sized bergs, called bergy bits, Moon said.

This population of polar bears are on the southeast tip of the giant island, where there are no towns. For years scientists figured these bears were part of the same population in Northeast Greenland, just roaming up and down the massive coast. But they don’t, Laidre said. An unusual set up of winds, currents and geographical features around 64 degrees North make it next to impossible for bears to move north of that point, the current sends them south fast, she said.

While most bears travel 25 miles (40 kilometers) over four days, the Southeast Greenland bears go about 6 miles (10 kilometers) in the same time, the study said.

“They just stay in the same place for years and years,” Laidre said.

Genetic testing Laidre and colleagues did showed they are more different from the neighboring populations than any other pair of polar bear populations on Earth, said study co-author Beth Shapiro, a University of California Santa Cruz evolutionary geneticist.

Occasionally, a bear from elsewhere breeds with the southeast bear, but Shapiro said it’s infrequent and only one-way with no bear heading north and breeding with that population.

In general these bears are thinner than other Arctic bears, with females weighing about 400 pounds (185 kilograms), compared to 440 to 560 pounds (199 to 255 kilograms) elsewhere in the North American Arctic, Laidre said. And they also tend to have fewer cubs, which could be because they are so isolated and don’t get as many mating opportunities, she said.

Because this group hadn’t been studied before, Laidre said it is impossible to tell if the Southeast Greenland polar bear population has just adapted to be smaller and have fewer cubs or whether these are indicators of a stressed population and not a good sign for survival. Shapiro and others don’t think it looks good.

“They’re not reproducing as much as other individuals,” Shapiro said. “They’re not as healthy as other individuals who are in a better habitat. So it’s kind of an oasis maybe, but it’s not a happy oasis. It’s a I’m-struggling-to-get-by-but-just-making-it kind of oasis.”

Long-time polar bear scientist Steve Amstrup of Polar Bear International, who wasn’t part of the study, said he worries that people will wrongly take this research to mean polar bears can adapt to climate change, when it’s about one small group that is prolonging their ability to persist, adding that this “does not offer salvation.” While this group is distinct he said he fears that calling attention to it “may in fact diminish the natural isolation they currently enjoy.”

This shows “that we can still really have surprises,” Moon said. “And I’m constantly reminded that there’s not ever a point where we throw in the towel.”


Follow AP’s climate coverage at


Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Thousands of protesters march around the Arizona Capitol after the Supreme Court decision to overtu...
Associated Press

Dueling narratives of Arizona protests ended with tear gas

PHOENIX (AP) — Protests outside the Arizona Capitol over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade that ended with a volley of tear gas were variously described Saturday as either peaceful or driven by anarchists intent on destruction. Republican Senate President Karen Fann issued a news release describing it as a thwarted […]
15 hours ago
FILE - This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Pr...
Associated Press

WHO panel: Monkeypox not a global emergency ‘at this stage’

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization said the escalating monkeypox outbreak in more than 50 countries should be closely monitored but does not warrant being declared a global health emergency. In a statement Saturday, a WHO emergency committee said many aspects of the outbreak were “unusual” and acknowledged that monkeypox — which is endemic […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Mali junta paves way for elections with new law

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali’s junta leader signed a new law paving the way for elections and a return of the West African country to constitutional rule. Col. Assimi Goita has been president of the transitional government since seizing power in a coup two years ago. The law signed Friday would also allow him and […]
15 hours ago
Pope Francis arrives in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican for the participants into the World Meeti...
Associated Press

Congo bishops say pope’s Canada trip a good sign for future

ROME (AP) — Congo’s Catholic bishops, coping with disappointment over a scrubbed visit by Pope Francis, said Saturday that his decision to go ahead with a trip to Canada was an “encouraging sign” that his knee treatment was working, as they held out hope for a rescheduled date. In the meantime, Francis is sending the […]
15 hours ago
Emergency personnel look over the sight of a  helicopter that crashed in Blair, W.Va., on Thursday,...
Associated Press

West Virginia helicopter crash victims identified

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Medical examiners in West Virginia have released the names of six people killed in the crash of a Vietnam-era helicopter that gave tour rides. The aircraft crashed Wednesday during its last planned flight at an annual reunion for helicopter enthusiasts in Logan County. All six people aboard were killed. The state’s […]
15 hours ago
Associated Press

Army private’s plea shelved internet fantasy chat defense

NEW YORK (AP) — An Army private charged with plotting to murder members of his unit overseas with help from a secretive violent anarchist group was planning a defense calling it all an internet fantasy before pleading guilty just before trial, court records show. Plans for the defense of Ethan Phelan Melzer was revealed in […]
15 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
Shaky oasis for some polar bears found, but not for species