The seals must build snow caves on the ice to hide from polar bears, give birth to their young, and provide shelter for the pups as they grow, notes Brendan Kelly, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Juneau, Alaska, and another member of the team reporting results at Thursday's meeting.
The team's projections indicate that during the second half of the century, too little snow will be available to the seals. A warmer global climate would bring more precipitation, with more snow falling on the sea ice in winter. But the warmth also would delay the return of the ice after the summer melt-back.
Snow levels on the ice in winter would be "substantially less" than the amounts needed for snow caves "because the late freeze-up effect really dominates," Kelly says.
Identifying a likely refuge for polar bears and many other important species along the Arctic coast is an important step toward crafting plans to preserve a sustainable population there, Kelly says.
But such plans also would require a level of advanced planning unfamiliar to the conservation community, he adds.
"In my experience with management of wildlife populations, you're lucky if you've got a 10-year plan. Having a 100-year plan for a completely different habitat, that's new territory for resource managers," he says.