Polar Bears: Treading Water in the Sea of Climate Change

Known as the white bear, the ice bear, the Lord of the Arctic, the old man in the fur cloak, God’s dog, and the master of helping spirits – the polar bear has endeared itself to the imagination of native peoples of the Arctic as well as the animal loving people the world over. These majestic bears have become the face of the dire effects of global warming and climate change for people around the world.

Changing Threats From Humans

At one time, the most serious threat to the polar bear was hunting by humans. Hunting practices of the 1960s and 70s spurred one of the world’s strongest international environmental agreements of all time.

The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears brought together countries otherwise politically divided by the Cold War to address threats to the species survival. The United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway found a shared goal in preserving the world’s population of white bears.

The fact that an agreement of this nature was reached during such incredibly volatile times gives us much reason to hope for another large-scale international accord in an age of mounting research. Today, illegal hunting by humans remains a concern even as warming trends pose a much more severe threat to these noble creatures.

How Warming Trends Affects the Arctic

As temperatures rise due to global warming, dramatic and concerning trends have been observed in the Arctic area. Sea ice, once at its peak during summer months, today covers 40% less area than when found in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Sea ice has been steadily disappearing at the alarming rate of 13.4% per decade. The decline in sea ice is part of a vicious cycle which worsens the predicament of rising temperatures. Constant heating of the environment makes the Arctic area a less than desirable place for the polar bear and its food source, the seal. Being used to minimal temperature levels, they are forced to adapt to climate change.

A Powerful Hunter In Danger

White bears hunt ringed and bearded seals for the bulk of their diet. Though they spend more than 50% of their time hunting, they are only successful in catching their chosen prey less than 2% of the time.

Climate change threatens the successful hunting habits of polar bears in two distinct ways. First, bears experiencing thinning ice frequently seek stability by migrating to land. Kept away from their primary food source, the Bears will utilize stored body fat to survive. Malnutrition is a frequent result and starvation is a real risk, particularly for the vulnerable mothers of bear cubs.

Second, the very ringed and bearded seals hunted by these bears are themselves populations at risk due to changing temperatures. Respect for the important Arctic ecosystem reveals that, as is the case with all ecosystems, nothing in nature occurs in a vacuum.

An Industrial Threat

As Arctic ice shrinks, oil industry traffic and installations gain access to areas which were previously unpassable. This increased activity in the Arctic puts the white bear population and that of their seal prey at risk.

Potential fossil fuel spills and leaks threaten deadly consequences. Noise from crude oil manufactory and activity in the Arctic threaten normal behavioral activity and patterns of all animals in the biome. Increased traffic through the area disturbs the natural rhythms of life for bears and all Arctic wildlife.

What Can Be Done?

While the human action may be the most extreme threat to Arctic life, it also has the potential to be the most powerful aid. There is much reason to feel optimistic despite the mounting evidence of damage done. The number of people that are aware of the effects of climate change profoundly increased. The more people understand the problem, the more voices for change will reach people and inspire ever widening changes.

While many of us may never visit the Arctic in our lifetimes or encounter its beautiful inhabitants in person, each of us has a role to play in the survival and well-being of white bears and lessening the impact of climate change on the planet. Simple, conscious, daily steps can make a real impact.

Try some of these simple habits to make a difference:

  • Recycle or reuse newspapers, glass bottles, jars, cans, and plastics;
  • Start a compost heap in your yard;
  • Turn off unused electronics and lights;
  • Take showers instead of baths;
  • Cycle, skate, or walk whenever possible;
  • Take reusable cloth bags in town when you head to the store or reuse plastic bags from previous trips. When it is time to retire old plastic bags, recycle them rather than tossing them out;
  • When buying products look for products with minimal packaging and become waste conscious;
  • Donate unwanted items to charity rather than discarding whenever possible;
  • Consider changing out expired lightbulbs with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs;
  • Encourage your place of employment to offer charging stations for electric cars.