Polar Bears at Risk from Global Warming

The subject of the action alert grabbed my attention – Save the Polar Bears – Help Stop Global Warming!”

There is something magical about polar bears. I first became captivated during zoo visits as a youth. When the opportunity arose to add a visit to Barrow while visiting Alaska this coming June, I immediately signed on. While not guaranteed, I knew that Barrow was one of the few opportunities to see a polar bear in its natural habitat.

A universal fascination with Polar bears has propelled them to global warming’s poster child. Stories of Polar bears drowning in arctic waters pain a grim picture to which many can relate. Andrew Derocher, professor at the University of Alberta draws a comparison between global warming’s impact on polar bears with the effects on forest clear-cutting on its wildlife inhabitants.

“If Polar bears can swim, why are they drowning?” skeptics have asked. It is a fact that Polar bears are strong swimmers and transport themselves long distances in arctic waters between ice floes. What is also true is that the ice is receding further north, increasing the distance between the ice floes and land, a treacherous journey for young bears.

Ursus maritimus depend upon the arctic ice for their very existence. According to an article in the December/January 2007 issue of National Wildlife, Polar bears “routinely travel 3,000 miles a year, moving from ice floe to land to ice floe.”
Their primary source of food is ringed and bearded seals. The bear will wait patiently next to a hole in the ice for a seal to surface for air, then grabs the seal’s head between its jaws and drags it out of the water.

The bears mate while out on the summer ice floes and use the ice as a resting platform. Pregnant females build their dens on ice packs – sometimes several hundred miles offshore – or in snow drifts on land within 10 miles of the coast. They enter their dens around mid October and give birth sometime between November and January. The young bears, who are only about 1.5 pounds at birth, nurse over the winter until they are between 10 to 20 pounds. Sometime in late March or early April, they and the mother emerge. After fasting for several months, the female is famished. She and her cubs will head toward the sea. Whether the birthing dens are on an ice floe or on land, the receding ice and resulting rising water levels are threatening their survival.

The polar ice cap has shrunk, retreating 160 miles north of the Alaska coast. A team of over 300 international scientists reports in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment that in the last few decades Arctic temperatures rose at nearly twice the rate as the rest of the world. As a result, according to the Canadian Wildlife Service, the ice on Hudson Bay is melting an average of three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago. This leaves a shorter period of time for the mothers and their cubs to build up needed fat reserves before they get stranded on the ice-free shore. During this same thirty year period, the Canadian Wildlife Service has documented a 55 pound drop in the average weight of female bears. If this persists, it will make them incapable of reproducing.

With longer seasons without ice, their natural food source has diminished and they have had to turn to other food sources. They are frequently seen scavenging on whale carcasses, and there have been reports of cannibalism.

Yet many people continue to believe that global warming is not serious. It saddened me to read the comments posted online following a February 2007 story in Britain’s Daily Mail. “Tell Al Gore the sky is not falling,” represent the flavor of many comments.

Steve Amstrup, polar bear biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey has been quoted in a number of articles as saying, “It’s fair to say as goes the sea ice so goes the polar bear.”

The Inuit name for Polar bear can be translated as “The one who gives power.” I am hopeful that the Polar bear can use its symbolic power to help skeptics realize the seriousness of global warming and influence U.S. environmental policy.

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