Polar Bears on the Rocks
by Bill Chameides | August 11th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)
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.)
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, 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
and: Baffin Bay, Davis Straits, Endangered Species Act, polar bear, sea ice, threatened species