Hope for Polar Bears (and People)

Watching polar bears at the San Diego Zoo enjoy their special snow day, it is not hard to see that these bears are very much at home with snow and ice, and truly know how to make good use of it! This beautiful scene prompts me to reflect on how this past year has unfolded in terms of all things polar bear, and to harken back to my experience last fall watching polar bears on Hudson Bay waiting for the sea ice to form. Because polar bears need the sea ice to survive, it was impossible not to feel anxious for the individual polar bears, as the ice was late to form.

Climate change continues to be, by far, the greatest threat to the persistence of polar bears (and innumerable other species) in the wild. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just released its Arctic Report Card, and the news is really quite sobering: 2015 will go down in history as having the lowest recorded winter sea ice extent. The thickness and age of the multiyear sea ice has declined dramatically, and the summer sea ice extent also continues to decline. Air temperatures in the Arctic have warmed at twice the rate of anywhere else on the planet, and this of course, feeds into the dramatic sea ice changes that we have seen in the past decades. However, in the face of this news, I am feeling optimistic, even hopeful, about the future of polar bears.

Hope has been described as “a verb with its sleeves rolled up”—and if nothing else, 2015 has certainly been a year where thousands of people have rolled up their sleeves for polar bears, and the innumerable other species that are, and will, also be impacted by climate change. The COP21 meeting in Paris brought together people from all over the world, and the agreement that was reached will require that all countries work together toward a common goal: to reduce our carbon footprint; and, in so doing, keep global mean temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. This agreement is going to require follow-through, of course, but the implications for wildlife are clear, and we must take action to cap our greenhouse gas emissions. We must roll up our sleeves.

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As a scientist focused on polar bears, I had the pleasure of participating in various collaborative projects and programs aimed at sharing the unique beauty and critical conservation plight of the polar bear with people around the world. Again, as a scientist, my work is focused on studying polar bears and communicating our results—and why our research matters. But in the course of my polar bear work this past year, I also had the opportunity to work with educators, engineers, children, college students, writers, photographers, tundra buggy drivers, and other members of the support crew, toward the common goal of saving polar bears. It takes people with a wide variety of skills and interests to fulfill the hope we share for polar bears.

Here at the San Diego Zoo, the polar bear team worked closely with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Alaska on studies that will improve our understanding of the impacts of climate change on bear behavior; and we continue to work with Polar Bears International on a number of projects, including their broadcasts from the tundra that make it possible for schoolchildren all over the world to see polar bears live on the tundra, during the great polar bear migration. During the course of this event, we saw tens of polar bears waiting patiently for the sea ice to form on Hudson Bay. Once the ice reaches a certain critical mass, polar bears can go back out onto the ice and resume the seal hunting that is essential for their survival, ending a months-long fast.

We know that if we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (our carbon footprint) we can turn around the declines in sea ice that threaten the polar bear with extinction. If we roll up our sleeves and work toward this common goal, we can fulfill the vision of hope I think we all share for the polar bear and other wildlife.

Happy Holidays!

Megan Owen, Ph.D., is associate director of Applied Animal Ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Our Panda Family.