Predicting 21st-century polar bear habitat distribution from global climate models

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  • Projections of polar bear (Ursus maritimus) sea ice habitat distribution in the polar basin during the 21st century were developed to understand the consequences of anticipated sea ice reductions on polar bear populations. We used location data from satellite-collared polar bears and environmental data (e. g., bathymetry, distance to coastlines, and sea ice) collected from 1985 to 1995 to build resource selection functions (RSFs). RSFs described habitats that polar bears preferred in summer, autumn, winter, and spring. When applied to independent data from 1996 to 2006, the RSFs consistently identified habitats most frequently used by polar bears. We applied the RSFs to monthly maps of 21st-century sea ice concentration projected by 10 general circulation models (GCMs) used in the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, under the A1B greenhouse gas forcing scenario. Despite variation in their projections, all GCMs indicated habitat losses in the polar basin during the 21st century. Losses in the highest-valued RSF habitat (optimal habitat) were greatest in the southern seas of the polar basin, especially the Chukchi and Barents seas, and least along the Arctic Ocean shores of Banks Island to northern Greenland. Mean loss of optimal polar bear habitat was greatest during summer; from an observed 1.0 million km(2) in 1985-1995 (baseline) to a projected multi-model mean of 0.32 million km(2) in 2090-2099 (-68% change). Projected winter losses of polar bear habitat were less: from 1.7 million km(2) in 1985-1995 to 1.4 million km(2) in 2090-2099 (-17% change). Habitat losses based on GCM multi-model means may be conservative; simulated rates of habitat loss during 1985-2006 from many GCMs were less than the actual observed rates of loss. Although a reduction in the total amount of optimal habitat will likely reduce polar bear populations, exact relationships between habitat losses and population demographics remain unknown. Density and energetic effects may become important as polar bears make long-distance annual migrations from traditional winter ranges to remnant high-latitude summer sea ice. These impacts will likely affect specific sex and age groups differently and may ultimately preclude bears from seasonally returning to their traditional ranges.

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    © 2009 Ecological Society of America. This version of this article is open access and can be downloaded and shared. The original author(s) and source must be cited.
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    • Durner, G. M., Douglas, D. C., Nielson, R. M., Amstrup, S. C., McDonald, T. L., Stirling, I., Mauritzen, M., et al. (2009). Predicting 21st-century polar bear habitat distribution from global climate models. Ecological Monographs, 79(1), 25-58. DOI: 10.1890/07-2089.1.