Polar Bear Week 2023: Climate Change Is Impacting Lactation, and Therefore Population Growth, Research Finds

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Oct. 30 2023, Updated 12:18 p.m. ET

Two polar bears rest in the snow
Source: KT Miller/Polar Bears International

During the first week of November, people all over the world observe Polar Bear Week. The timing of this annual holiday is not arbitrary — it falls during the annual polar bear migration in the town of Churchill, located in northern Manitoba, Canada, along Hudson Bay.

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To commemorate the 2023 holiday, Polar Bears International published new research on how the climate crisis is impacting polar bear populations by harming polar bear lactation.

To learn more about the study, Polar Bear Week 2023, and for a few exciting ways you can celebrate these iconic Arctic creatures, keep reading.

A polar bear walks in the snow
Source: KT Miller/Polar Bears International
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Polar Bear Week is all about protecting these important animals.

Polar Bear Week is presented by Polar Bears International, a conservation organization with a goal of protecting polar bears and their habitats. In alignment with its goal of protecting the Arctic creatures, Polar Bears International is also committed to fighting the climate crisis, which is a large part of the polar bear’s demise in recent decades.

In 2023, Polar Bear Week is observed from Sunday, Oct. 29 through Saturday, Nov. 4.

“Polar bears have captured the human imagination and become icons of climate change,” Polar Bears International Chief Scientist, Dr. Steven Amstrup, told Green Matters in a statement in 2021.

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“If greenhouse gas emissions continue as-is, the trajectory polar bears are on is not a good one… we predict most will disappear by the end of this century," Dr. Amstrup continued. "But it is clear that we have time to protect polar bears, in turn benefitting the rest of life on earth, including ourselves.”

Climate change is harming polar bears in endless ways — including by affecting their lactation abilities.

In honor of Polar Bear Week 2023, scientists from Polar Bears International, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Toronto published new research on polar bear lactation in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series on Oct. 5, 2023.

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For the study, the researchers looked at the connection between the climate crisis and and polar bear mothers' lactation. They found that melting sea ice (caused by rising temperatures) drives polar bears to spend more time on land, and therefore less time hunting and subsequently less time eating; this affects their ability to produce milk as frequently (and to produce "energy-rich" milk) for their babies. This can impact cub growth, and therefore lead to polar bear population decline.

“Polar bear lactation is crucial to the survival of cubs but is still not well-understood. These results may also affect our understanding of other long-lived species that must nurse offspring without access to food,” co-author Dr. Louise Archer said in a statement shared with Green Matters in October 2023.

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Two polar bears walk in the snow
Source: Max Lowe/Polar Bears International

Between rising global temperatures (and therefore melting sea ice) and Arctic drilling, polar bears need our help more than ever — here are a few ways you can get observe Polar Bear Week, plus organizations you can donate to.

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Tune into the polar bear live cam.

Polar Bears International runs various livestreams of wild polar bears migrating, available 24/7 throughout Polar Bear Week.

As explained by Polar Bears International, an important part of the migration is the polar bears’ stop in Churchill, where they eagerly await cold enough weather for sea ice to freeze. Once it does, they are able to get out onto the water and hunt for seals, after not having eaten for a while.

Tune into a Tundra Connections chat to learn more about polar bears.

In honor of Polar Bear Week, Polar Bears International is hosting several live talks online, as part of the Tundra Connections series.

You can learn more about the above study by tuning into "Living on Land Has Its Limits: Lactation, Starvation, and Survival" on Tuesday, Oct. 31 at 1 p.m. CT.

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On Thursday, Nov. 2 at 12 p.m. CT, students in grades 3 through 8 can check out "Virtual Field Trip on the Tundra: Build the Change with LEGO and Discovery Education."

There's also "Community Connections: Churchill's Relationship with Polar Bears" on Thursday, Nov. 9 at 11 a.m. CT. You can learn about these events (and others!) on the Tundra Connections page.

Donate to protect polar bears and their habitats.

Polar Bears International has a 100 percent rating on Charity Navigator, as of October 2023.

The charity uses donations to help protect polar bears, the sea ice that is integral to their survival, and preserve the climate that has allowed humans to flourish. You can also symbolically adopt a polar bear from Polar Bears International — in exchange for your donation, you’ll receive an adoption kit with some bear-y cute swag.

Additionally, international environmental charity Greenpeace uses donations to help a variety of causes, and the Australian division of Greenpeace’s website has a specific donation page to help polar bears.

This article, originally published on Oct. 28, 2021, has been updated to reflect Polar Bear Week 2023.

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