As the sea ice melts, a new ocean is opening up, making commercial activity in the Arctic increasingly accessible. This adds a variety of new threats to polar bears that will require careful management. These activities include oil and gas exploration and development, shipping, mining, and tourism.
Oil and Natural Gas
As more exploration and development takes place in the Arctic, the risk of oil spills increase. Scientists are concerned that spilled oil would collect in leads in the ice and between ice floes, affecting both polar bears and their seal prey. At present, there is no proven method to clean up oil spills in arctic waters and a basic emergency response infrastructure is lacking.
- Earlier studies have also shown that polar bears and oil don’t mix: oil collects in polar bear fur, causing the bears to ingest toxins as they try to groom themselves. This can lead to kidney failure, digestive disorders, and brain damage, which are ultimately fatal. Lost insulation from fur, hair loss, and skin and eye irritations are other effects.
- Although a large arctic spill has not yet occurred in the marine environment, such a spill could lead to widespread fatalities for both seals and polar bears, depending on the circumstances—such as the time of year, the area affected, and sea ice conditions. Such an event would also have far-reaching impacts across the arctic ecosystem as cold temperatures would delay the breakdown of hydrocarbons and related chemicals.
- Increased oil exploration also adds the risk of noise disturbance from seismic activity, potentially disturbing polar bear mothers and cubs during the sensitive period when they are in their dens and dispersing prey. Excessive disturbances could cause a mother to abandon a den.
- Significantly, fossil fuels like oil produce greenhouse gas emissions when burned. Scientists advocate transitioning to renewable energy sources and leaving the majority of remaining oil reserves in the ground.
As the sea ice melts and more shipping routes open up,the Arctic is expected to see an increase in shipping traffic. The effects of these additional activities on polar bears are unknown, although there are concerns about increased undersea sound, enhanced risk of oil spills as a result of shipping accidents, and the general lack of an emergency response infrastructure for both human and environmental safety.
Mining activity in the Arctic is a potential threat to polar bears mainly because of shipping. This is due to the need to ship equipment in and product out. Mining also brings a minor threat of habitat disturbance and degradation from near-shore infrastructure needs such as docks and transfer facilities.
As with increased ship traffic, more tourism in the Arctic could pose a threat to polar bears and lead to a surge of polar bear-human conflicts. Ship-based tourism also adds to the concerns around commercial shipping.
Polar bears are curious animals that are drawn to unusual sights and smells. This leads them to check out campsites, cabins, and tourists on shore. Without careful management and education on how to safely visit polar bear country, these encounters could end with tragically, for polar bears or people.