The days leading up to my departure for Polar Bear International’s Climate Alliance program in the Canadian subarctic were filled with wonder and excitement. I was curious about what I would experience and eager to observe polar bears in their natural habitat. This would be the first time I traveled to the tundra to get a glimpse of the Arctic’s most recognizable ambassadors. But the question of whether or not we would actually see polar bears had never crossed my mind.
Despite spending a week in what is called the “polar bear capital of the world,” Churchill, Manitoba offered no bear sightings whatsoever—except for the stuffed museum displays and cultural symbols sprinkled throughout the town. While there is no denying my disappointment, visiting the tundra during its transitional phase confirmed how dynamic and challenging an environment the Arctic really is for its inhabitants, especially in the southern circumpolar regions.
When most people think of polar bears and the Arctic, we’re immediately transported to a frozen desert, blanketed in snow as far as the eye can see. However, this is only partially true. In mid-to-late July when the ice melts, the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of bears is forced ashore to wait out the warmer months. They do not hibernate, but merely endure a low-energy fasting period while they await access to their main prey: ringed seals. Since the early 1980s, this specific group has seen a population decrease of 22 percent—and scientists have directly related their loss to the longer ice-free season.
If we think about other at-risk megafauna—such as rhinos, elephants, and big cats—human activity has had a more direct impact. We’ve encroached on their native territory, commercially destroyed their habitats, or used industrial weapons to slaughter them for our own benefit. Traditional conservation models like anti-poaching efforts, land preservation, and community-based education don’t work for polar bears and the Arctic ecosystem. Why? Because climate change is the only culprit responsible for the shifting landscape and seasonal distortions affecting the area. A new paradigm is required to save species threated by human-caused climate change.
Although I cannot draw a direct scientific link between the lack of bears during my trip to Churchill and the impacts of climate change, when I look at the biological and environmental research, it’s easy to see how the deck is stacked against polar bears and the place they call home. Witnessing firsthand what the Arctic looks like without its iconic ambassadors highlighted the importance of addressing the real issues. The greatest cause of climate change is excessive carbon emissions, pumped into the atmosphere and eventually absorbed by the ocean. Individual actions are useful, but we also need to rethink our reliance on fossil fuels as a nation. If you want to help save polar bears and the Arctic ecosystem, start by taking positive action to support the environment in your own community, and when you cast your ballot at the polls. We can only make a difference if we take action.
Jenn Beening is a communications specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Fantastic Flesh-Eating Plants.
(All photos by Jenn Beening)