Mysterious Arctic Illness May Have Spread to Polar Bears

polar bear on ice (NASA)

A mysterious disease that swept through populations of seals in the Canadian, Russian and American Arctic last year and was associated with high levels of mortality, may have spread to one of the seals’ principal predators.  Scientists with the United States Geological Survey reported observing polar bears with hair loss and skin lesions in the Beaufort Sea, near Barrow.  These symptoms are similar to those that affected ice seal populations in the same area last summer, although whether they are suffering from the same illness remains unknown. 

It should also be noted that Pacific walruses with similar symptoms were also observed near Barrow last year and they appeared otherwise healthy.  So far, so do the polar bears.

Nonetheless, the appearance of this disease among polar bears, a threatened species, is disturbing.  At the very least, it should serve as a caution flag to scientists and government officials.  With polar bears already vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and now showing signs of a new emergent illness, this is not the time to be playing Russian roulette with the Beaufort Sea population either by rushing ahead with offshore oil exploration and drilling or by continuing Canada’s commercial trade in polar bear skins.

You can tell the Obama Administration not to proceed with exploratory Arctic drilling here.

About the Authors

Andrew Wetzler

Deputy Chief Program Officer

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