As climate change melts the ice they need to survive, these icons of the Far North, famed for their strength, endurance and courage, are facing a huge threat to their existence
Polar bears have captured the human imagination for thousands of years. The Inuit people of the High North call them ‘Nanuk’ after the mythological bear that taught man to hunt and survive on the ice. In Norway they are known as ‘Isbjørn’ – the ice bear – as an allusion to the bears’ dependence on sea ice, a fact which now threatens their very existence. Often depicted as fearless warriors and shape-shifting protectors, the warming of our planet is placing the bears in peril. The sea ice platform from which they hunt seals is diminishing at a rapid pace. On the frozen Arctic Ocean, their hunting skills are supreme but as winters shorten and ice forms later in the season, the bears are unable to provide for themselves or their young. They come ashore to search for food, relying on their stored body fat until the sea refreezes. For more than 20 years, the summer sea ice has been decreasing and the bears must walk longer distances to stay with the receding ice. Sadly, this brings them and humans into greater conflict in coastal communities and leads to malnutrition for the bears. In the south of their range, where ice melt lasts the longest, this may even lead to starvation – especially for mothers with cubs. Polar bears were once hunted for their fur and meat, but loss of habitat is now the biggest threat to these great ice warriors.
Kings of the Arctic
Ice bears are designed for sub-zero conditions. They are protected by a warm coat and, if well fed, a thick insulating layer of fat. They have two kinds of hair: long, oily guard hairs that ward off the water and a dense undercoat of softer fur. Hairs on the soles of their feet stop them sliding on ice and their wide, flat paws stop them sinking in the snow. These bears are solitary and only come together to mate. They don’t have territories, but wander in search of food, sometimes travelling huge distances. One polar bear was tracked walking 4,800 kilometres (3,000 miles) from Alaska to Greenland. The bears don’t hibernate during winter, but pregnant females will dig a snow den, which she will stay in to give birth and live off fat reserves for the first three months of the cubs’ life. These apex predators of the Arctic are sometimes classified as marine mammals, because their hunting ground is the chilly waters under the ice, where they prey on ringed or bearded seals. They have an unparalleled role in maintaining the health of the marine environment and they are an ‘indicator species’, which means they help us measure the impact of climate change on their habitat. Polar bears are hugely significant to the cultures and economies of people in the Arctic and to Arctic tourism.
On thin ice
The loss of sea ice habitat from climate change is the most significant threat to polar bears. They feed mainly on ringed seals, who hunt beneath the ice. Bears stake out fractures and holes in the icy platform and ambush seals as they emerge to breathe. The Arctic winter is a time of plenty, but summer can bring starvation. As the temperature rises, much of the sea ice melts and the seals are free to surface anywhere, so the bears can no longer catch them. Changes to the Arctic habitat are occurring so rapidly that the bears are unable to adapt their hunting strategies to their new environment. Polar bears aren’t fast enough to hunt on dry land and while they are excellent swimmers, they can’t keep up with seals in the water either. Instead, they prowl coastlines scavenging carrion, birds’ eggs and small mammals. This increases their conflict with Arctic people and those working in Arctic industries.
Saving the bears
Dr Steven C. Amstrup is chief scientist for Polar Bears International. He has worked in polar bear research and conservation for over 35 years
What future do you see for polar bears over the next 100 years?
If we significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and do so soon, polar bears can survive the next 100 years throughout much of their current range. If we can actually stop GHG rise, rather than just slowing it, and prevent temperature rise at something close to, or less than, the two degree Celsius increase proposed at the Paris Climate Talks, polar bears are likely to survive in the long-term. However if we continue on our current GHG emissions path, polar bears could all be gone within 100 years. Research has shown there is a direct relationship between the average global temperature and the extent of sea ice. Warmer temperatures mean less sea ice habitat. Therefore, stopping temperature rise saves more of that habitat.
Is it too late to save the species ?
No, the connection between global temperature and sea ice means we still have time to save polar bears. Radically cutting the production of GHG can assure their survival. But the longer we wait to switch to sustainable energy sources, the less likely it is that there will be sufficient habitat to support the polar bears. It is not too late but if we really want to save them, we must act now.
Are there any conservation projects in place to safeguard the bears?
The short answer is no. There is much on-the-ground research designed to understand polar bears and assess population trends, and so on. Although some of those activities may temporarily aid polar bears as their habitat declines, none can make a difference to their ultimate future unless we stop global warming. If humans don’t get their act together to stop temperature rise, all of the research and management will be for nothing. Conversely, if we stabilise sea ice habitat, ongoing studies could help ensure the maximum number of bears are still around to take advantage of that stability.
Can zoos play a role in the conservation of polar bears?
Yes, the most important thing zoos can do is provide exhibits that introduce the public to captivating ambassadors for wild polar bears and other animals in zoos. Those ambassadors must be presented along with critical messages about the threat that global warming presents to polar bears and what we all need to do to alleviate that risk.
How can our readers help save the bears?
This is the crux. Only those of us living away from the Arctic can save polar bears. Historically we could protect threatened species by hiring game wardens or building fences to keep people out and doing other things to protect habitats and the animals that live there, but we cannot build a fence to protect sea ice from rising temperatures. The only way to save polar bears is for all of us to quit our dependence on carbon-based energy sources and move to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.
Protecting an icon
These three organisations are fighting to keep the frozen north home to the ice bear
Established in 1992, this is the only conservation charity whose sole focus is polar bears. Polar Bears International (PBI) works with scientists, governments, educators and other conservationists, using cutting-edge science and the media to try and ensure the polar bears’ survival. Its aim is to encourage people to understand the connection between changing global climate, sea ice and the wildlife it supports.
PBI has a field base in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada – the best place in the world to study polar bears. It is currently carrying out ground-breaking research into the effects of hunger and stress on the bears.
Polar bears are a key target species for this global conservation organisation, but they are not an easy species to conserve. It is not just a matter of creating a protected reserve or stopping poachers. Protecting polar bears requires global action to control the rise in the Earth’s temperature. WWF encourages people to ‘adopt’ a bear, the sponsorship money going towards essential research into climate change and fighting proposed commercial development in sensitive habitats such as denning areas. The charity has a tool on its website that allows users to assess their own carbon footprint and offers advice on how to reduce it.
Canada is home to around 16,000 polar bears, more than 60 per cent of the world’s population, so it’s fitting that a Canadian organisation is at the forefront of the fight to save the species. Established in Vancouver in 1971, Greenpeace has targeted many environmental issues such as deforestation and whaling. It has now launched Save the Arctic, a campaign that draws attention to climate change and the risks of industrial exploitation in this fragile habitat. It also highlights that everyone can contribute towards saving polar bears by making small changes, such as driving fewer miles, turning down the heating and buying food from local producers.
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