Tomorrow, February 27, is International Polar Bear Day. Many environmental organizations are asking that you take some kind of action to show your concern for our rapidly warming planet and the fate of climate change’s poster child: the polar bear. Requests range from taking part in a thermostat challenge to symbolically “adopting” a polar bear.
But given all the dire predictions for this animal’s future, is it already too late to help stem the tide that’s rising against Ursus maritimus, the great “sea bear”?
Ice out; orcas in
According to the National Wildlife Federation, there are about 25,000 polar bears worldwide. But the population is declining from a variety of perils, including pollution, poaching and the potential for oil development in Arctic waters. The most severe threat, though, likely comes from rapid climate change, which is melting the sea ice that the bears use to search for and capture their primary food: seals.
This rapid loss of sea ice is forcing many polar bears to swim across huge expanses of open water, a challenging physical feat. Many drown. In 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey found four females floating dead after a summer storm; and in 2011, a collared female swam 426 miles in nine days with her young cub, losing 22 percent of her body weight in a search for ice. The cub died. In fact, the USGS projects that the disappearance of the bear’s key sea-ice hunting habitat will decrease the polar bear population by two-thirds before 2050.
The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife recently released a story about orcas making an appearance in Hudson Bay around Churchill—unheard of until recently. Early European explorers made no mention of the whales before 1900. Between then and 1960, there were only a few sightings. But in the last five years, 40 sightings of orcas have been reported. Because orcas’ tall dorsal fins can get stuck in ice, they generally avoid it. Warming waters, however, are now causing some of them to make Hudson Bay their summer home, leaving scientists wondering what that will mean for the food web. Isotope analyses of the teeth of two orcas found in the bay suggest that they are eating narwhals, bowheads and belugas. With little experience evading killer whales—and no ice in which to hide—these marine animals could soon be in serious trouble.
Temps up; thermostats down
In November of 2012, the World Bank released a report titled Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° C Warmer World Must be Avoided. The scientists mentioned in the report almost unanimously predicted that by the end of this century, the world will be warmer by 4 degrees Celsius (every 1-degree Celsius rise in temperature equals a nearly 2-degree Fahrenheit increase), if serious policy changes are not instituted now. Coastal cities would become flooded, there would be unprecedented heat waves and an irreversible loss of biodiversity would ensue, including the demise of coral reef systems. What’s more, a 4-degree Celsius warmer world would be so different than the one we live in today that it’s hard to anticipate what other new risks and threats will come along with it.
The auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP confirms the World Bank report with its own study, the results of which warn that the United States and other industrialized nations need an aggressive carbon-pollution-reduction program that cuts greenhouse-gas emissions in half in the next 20 years if we want to avoid ecological and societal disaster. Catastrophic events such as last fall’s Hurricane Sandy demonstrate that there is already an enormous price to pay for ignoring climate change. While warmer-than-normal ocean water—caused by a 1-degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperature—may have played a role in the storm’s intensity, rising sea levels certainly drove more water farther inland.
Of course, the species most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are those best adapted to the cold, ice and snow. Alaska is heating up faster than anywhere else in the United States, according to the Defenders of Wildlife. Over the past 50 years in Alaska, temperatures have risen from 1 to almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
To tell you the truth, given all of this, I don’t know if turning my thermostat down and putting on an extra coat tomorrow will help save polar bears. But I know it can’t hurt. So, I’ll spin the dial and bundle up. I hope you will, too.
What do you plan to do for International Polar Bear Day? Can these sorts of declared days for the environment ever sway minds and effect real policy changes?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
Why not celebrate International Polar Bear Day by planning an adventure to see them in the wild? Natural Habitat Adventures’ world-class polar bear tours bring you face-to-face with these majestic animals. Or, for a 24-7 immersion into the world of the polar bear, check out our Tundra Lodge Adventure.