Polar Bears on the Rocks

by Bill Chameides | August 11th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 10 comments

A polar bear, on the rocks. (Photo: Grant Saunders)

Travels with TheGreenGrok — The latest dispatch in a series on interesting places my deanly duties are whisking me off to.

The iconic figure of global warming seen from a distance.

The polar bear, they say, is in trouble. Its survival depends on sea ice. It’s that simple. Polar bears live on sea ice. They hunt for seals, their primary food source, on sea ice. In springtime they mate and breed on sea ice and it’s sea ice that allows them easy movement across their large habitats. The majority of their lives is spent on sea ice. When sea ice is sparse, life for these powerful bears, which along with the Kodiak are the largest bear species, becomes problematic. (More on polar bears here [pdf] and here [pdf].)

An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears live throughout the Arctic in 19 subpopulations. (See population map and status table.) We’ve steamed through the range of two subpopulations, the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay groups, both of which are declining. The whys are apparent. Temperatures are on the rise and Arctic sea ice is on the decline. (Details at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

With sea ice dwindling and the survival of the polar bear hanging in the balance, in May 2008 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began protecting the polar bear as a “threatened” species (meaning it’s “likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future” [pdf]) under the Endangered Species Act. (Timeline here [pdf].)

A New View of the Icon

The polar bear’s fur appears white, serving as camouflage against snow and ice. But actually each hair in its coat is a clear, hollow tube — appearing white in sunlight. (Their skin is black.) (Photo: Grant Saunders)

The polar bear, with its startling white fur and cuddly, cute appearance, is arguably one of the more charismatic mammals around. So much so that its iconic image is used by one well-known American company, an icon in its own right, to sell soft drinks. Who wouldn’t want a soft drink from a white, furry friend from the North?

Given its charm and allure, the polar bear’s possible demise has struck a chord with people over the world. In many ways the polar bear has become the poster child for global warming. An image of a lone polar bear surrounded by ice -— white fur on white ice — has proven to be an effective way to “put a face” on the perils and consequences of human-caused climate change, a way to transform an intellectual concern into an emotional one.

Yesterday, our cruise ship paused on its voyage northward at Monumental Island, a tiny rocky spit of land just below Canada’s Baffin Island, the fifth largest island in North America.

We stopped to view the polar bears who apparently were spending the summer there awaiting the return of the ice floes in the fall. Some were asleep among the rocks, a pair were going for a brief swim in the chilly waters, and others were lumbering their way from one part of the island to another for reasons only a bear could understand.

In all, we counted about 15 bears, mostly in groups of two and three, some with cubs. Given the island’s size and barrenness, I suspect those bears will have very slim pickin’s, if any, until the ice returns.

For me, the sight of those bears in the flesh was significant, but in a way I had not expected. You might say that it broke the Disney-like spell of the cute polar bear that I had unknowingly been under from those global warming photos and soft drink commercials. The bears on Monumental Island did not pause or pose for the camera; in fact, they took no notice of us whatsoever. These were clearly not cute and cuddly creatures. They were very dangerous carnivores, best viewed from afar, as from the deck of a ship anchored offshore, with binoculars. Polar bears might be a cause ceélèbre back home, but the creatures themselves exist in a world apart.

The polar bears are special not because they’re cute and cuddly but because they are not cute and cuddly. Because in a world that has been largely domesticated, they remain completely wild, untamed. The polar bear survives by killing, without remorse or hesitation, and, to them, we human beings are just one more form of prey. We do a disservice to ourselves and to nature by trivializing the wild and violent nature of the polar bear.

The polar bear couldn’t care less about our survival. But people care about the polar bear. Perhaps a measure of our own special grace will prove to be that when all was said and done, we human beings found a way to let the polar bear remain alive and wild.

filed under: animals, Arctic, climate change, faculty, global warming, travel
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  1. MattN
    Aug 19, 2010

    Might want to update the ice graph. I believe there was some sort of “issue” when that particular graph was generated. The graph today looks quite a bit more optomistic:

    • Bill Chameides
      Aug 30, 2010

      Thanks for the update.

  2. MattN
    Aug 15, 2010

    I gotta tell ya Doc, I’m really getting tired of your blindness. The Baffin Bay polar bear population is HUNTED. Yes, HUNTED. 105 bears are taken each year, and a new proposal for quota limit was rejected: Tell me Doc, what is the rate of decline of the Baffin Bay population? Is it reducing by more or less than 105 bears a year? Think you might want to know that before you draw any conclusions about the effects of ice coverage? Stop ignoring facts Doc, like 105 polar bears/year are culled from the Baffin Bay population. The polar bears are just fine….

    • Bill Chameides
      Aug 25, 2010

      MattN, MattN, MattN: Many of the polar bear subpopulations in the Arctic are on the decline. Specifically of the 19 subpopulations, there is sufficient data to assess trends for 12 of them. Of those 12: 8 subpopulations are declining, 3 are stable and 1 is increasing. And by the way, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group has concluded that the “Loss of sea ice threatens the survival of the world’s polar bears.” http://www.polarbearsintern[…]alist%20Group%20Resolutions Doing “just fine?” I don’t think so.

      • MattN
        Aug 26, 2010

        Many. Populations. Of. Polar. Bears. Are. H-U-N-T-E-D!!! They are FINE, Doc. 25,000 of them and climbing. The people who interact with them daily (Innuits, etc.) claim there are more now than ever in their memory. I believe them far more than some government-funded scientist from another country who’s job it is to make global warming headlines….

        • Bill Chameides
          Aug 30, 2010

          MattN: And I visited with a fair number of Inuit who take a very different viewpoint than what you claim. And, while it is true that there appears (and I stress appears) to be an upswing in the reports of polar bears intruding on human communities, this is not necessarily a sign of a growing or a healthy population. More likely, it is a sign of a population that is losing prey and habitat, a population in trouble.

      • MattN
        Aug 26, 2010 Look under “What populations have been approved for the import of polar bear trophies by permit?” How does that list line up with the list of populations in decline? What more do I need to say? Stop hunting the bears, then we’ll talk about ice…

        • Bill Chameides
          Sep 22, 2010

          MattN: You have to actually read the stuff you quote. If you had, you would have seen that: 1. hunting is not allowed in all areas in Canada; 2. in M’Clintock Channel hunting was banned specifically because “this population has severely declined”; 3. the document dates from 2003 and was current with U.S. rules established in 2001 and thus is likely to be out of date. Now do a little more checking. Permits for hunting polar bears in Canada are only issued to aboriginal peoples (although they can and do sell their permits). In other words, the decision to allow hunting is for the preservation of a cultural heritage. And the hunting is very, very minimal: only about 3 percent of the total polar bear population is allowed to be taken in a year. In a report to the international community from the Canadian government it is stated: “Canada is keenly aware of the need to be especially vigilant regarding the risk of overharvest of polar bear. As an example, the harvest quota in the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation has been decreased from 56 bears per year to eight as a consequence of a declining population likely due to the declining availability of sea ice.”

  3. Ken Towe
    Aug 12, 2010

    Maybe I misinterpreted your post? I hope you are not implying with this observation that the occurrence of polar bears on rocks on an island in the summer is unusual or that the absence of sea ice at that locale in August is unusual.

  4. Libby Scancarello
    Aug 11, 2010

    “Perhaps a measure of our own special grace will prove to be that when all was said and done, we human beings found a way to let the polar bear remain alive and wild.” May it be so…

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