Scientists say 2019 was the warmest year ever recorded in Alaska, and it’s causing big problems for polar bears. Climate change is melting the sea ice habitat polar bears rely upon to travel, hunt, find mates, and, historically, to den. But as higher temperatures cause sea ice to become less stable and reliable, more female bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea are making maternal dens on land instead of on ice. Today, about one third of all female bears in this region make their dens along the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. The US government’s assessment of the environmental impacts of drilling on polar bears finds that more bears are denning on land and with “greater frequency than expected.” While the assessment acknowledges polar bears will be killed, it doesn’t estimate how many.
Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears are one of several polar bear subpopulations to have already experienced major decline caused by climate change, falling from approximately 1,500 individuals to around 900 in just a few years in the first decade of this century. Exploration and drilling along the coastal plain threaten to exacerbate this concerning trend.