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Polar bears live all around the Arctic, and their survival is threatened by climate change, which is melting the ice they depend on. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, scientists have just found a small population of polar bears in Greenland with an unusual lifestyle that might offer them some protection.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The coast of southeast Greenland is a lonely, rugged place. There's no towns or gas stations. It's just not a place that people usually go.
KRISTIN LAIDRE: It's a coastline with huge mountain peaks, lots of winds, extreme conditions, lots of fog.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kristin Laidre is with the University of Washington. She says you wouldn't expect to find many polar bears there either because it's not a place with much sea ice.
LAIDRE: Sea ice is the most important thing for a polar bear.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's their hunting grounds. They roam the sea's frozen surface and kill seals that come up to breathing holes in the ice. Laidre says in southeast Greenland, the sea ice only lasts for about 100 days a year.
LAIDRE: It disappears in May, and that's really early. It's not enough time for a polar bear to get fat enough and survive.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But she and her colleagues were doing a survey of polar bears all up and down the coast. So they helicopter out to this remote place. It's a two-hour flight.
LAIDRE: We arrived in these fjords, very isolated fjords, and expected to find, you know, one or two bears here and there. But there were a lot of bears in these fjords.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It turns out these bears were exploiting another source of ice. Where they live, freshwater glaciers come down from the land into the water. Chunks of these glaciers break off and create what's called an ice melange, a jumble of icebergs and snow that congeal together into an irregular surface.
LAIDRE: It can have, you know, water in between the pieces or it can be all crushed together. But bears can walk across this melange. If it's loose, they can swim in the melange and hunt seals that pull themselves out and sit on the freshwater ice.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Polar bears that have learned to live this way are homebodies. They stick to their familiar fjords. In the journal Science, the researchers say the few hundred polar bears in southeast Greenland are the most genetically isolated group of polar bears in the world. And Laidre says they're special in another way. They might be able to hold out as climate change melts sea ice all over the world.
LAIDRE: Glacial ice basically might help small numbers of bears survive for longer periods under climate warming.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But that doesn't mean we can stop worrying about polar bears because the vast majority rely entirely on sea ice. They don't have access to this kind of glacier ice.
IAN STIRLING: There are very few areas in which this kind of habitat is available.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ian Stirling is a polar bear biologist at the University of Alberta. He says even if these fjords with glaciers offer a potential refuge for some polar bears in a warming world, that refuge will be only temporary.
STIRLING: Because if the climate continues to warm as it's projected to do, these areas, too, will become of no use or not enough use to the bears.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the glaciers will melt and eventually shrink so much that their ends won't reach the water. By that point, there will be so little ice of any kind that polar bears will probably be long gone.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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