THE BLOG

On International Polar Bear Day, Hope for an Iconic Species

02/27/2015 12:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

My first summer in the Arctic was 1991. I was working for the National Ocean Service, tracking migrating fish along the Beaufort Sea Coast. Our season didn't start until mid-July, as the ocean was still solid ice before then. In those days, the sea ice rarely receded more than 10 miles from shore, never left the coast past the village of Kaktovik, and ultimately trapped our small research boat in Camden Bay for 17 days in August. Now, along that same coastline, the sea ice has retreated up to 400 miles from shore by late August -- a significant change in a very short time with profound implications for polar bears, the Arctic, and for all of us.

polar bear

Today, on International Polar Bear Day, I can't help but think about the dramatic changes to the sea ice that have taken place over the past two decades. Seeing those changes first hand is why this day of action, dedicated to polar bears, holds such importance for me. Over 14 years of capture work out in polar bear habitat, the teams that I worked with documented a number of disturbing changes: polar bears abandoning sea ice dens in favor of more stable dens on land; reduced cub survival rates and a drop in body condition in the Southern Beaufort Sea, ultimately resulting in a 40% decline in that population; more frequent and long-distance swimming events; and anecdotal observations of potential stress ranging from unexplained hair loss to cannibalism.

International Polar Bear Day draws attention to the challenges polar bears face in a warming Arctic and encourages each of us to do our part to address the primary threat to their long-term conservation -- climate change. The event is especially significant this year as world leaders work towards a new global climate agreement at a meeting of the Parties this December in Paris.

For polar bears and other ice dependent animals, the need to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to save their sea ice home is clear. But what happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic. It affects us all and threatens to undo conservation efforts around the world. Glaciers and ice sheets around the world are melting, lake and river ice is breaking up earlier, plant and wildlife ranges are shifting, and some plants are flowering earlier -- creating a mismatch for associated insect and wildlife species in some years. Impacts that had been predicted from a warming world are becoming manifest: loss of sea ice in both extent and volume, accelerated sea level rise, and longer, more intense weather periods -- both hot and cold.

While much is at stake, in the lead-up to the Paris Conference, we're seeing encouraging signs of a fundamental shift towards climate solutions:

  • President Obama has declared action on climate change a cornerstone of his final years in office
  • Pope Francis has spoken out about the need for the world's nations to take action, with plans to issue a climate change encyclical sometime this summer
  • Businesses and cities have started to take action on their own, seeing opportunity in green markets and realizing that the cost of inaction far outweighs those of taking action
  • Europe has set ambitious carbon-cutting targets
  • A growing number of nations, including Costa Rica, Iceland, New Zealand, and Norway, are aiming for net zero-emissions; others, like the U.S. and China, have forged climate agreements
  • Individuals are reducing their personal carbon footprints through increased efficiency and adoption of renewable energy solutions

For polar bears and for all of us, the world is starting to come together, with peer pressure, a drop in the cost of renewables, and a growing recognition of the need to take action all playing a role. Recent research shows that cuts we make today could have an impact within about a decade -- years earlier than previously thought.

So, on International Polar Bear Day, join us in paying tribute to the animal that has become the iconic symbol of climate change. Reduce your personal energy consumption, become involved in local projects -- and speak up to your leaders in support of renewable energy and the urgent need to take action.

Follow Geoff York on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GeoffYork