This generation might not be the last to see the wild polar bear, but it has a hand in the rapid decline of the species due to carbon emissions pumped into the air since the Industrial Revolution.
Feb. 27 is the International Polar Bear Day, and it’s an opportune time to celebrate and reflect on the status of the iconic species. Scientists and conservations with the nonprofit Polar Bear International designated this day as such to raise awareness on Earth’s changing climate and melting ice and how such phenomena affect the polar bear’s chances of survival.
Polar bears are now classified as Threatened in its 19 populations in Alaska, Canada, Norway, Greenland, and Russia, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Ursus maritimus’ global population, estimated to be at 22,000 to 25,000, is deemed relatively stable, but the FWS highlights climate change, the Arctic region’s contamination, potential overharvesting, and increasing human encroachment in the bear’s habitat as challenges in polar bear conservation.
The amazing polar bear has an average life span of 25 to 30 years, and it can weigh 900 to 1,600 pounds. This mammal roams the Arctic ice sheets and swim in the coastal waters, with large front paws for paddling and an ability for strong swimming.
Polar bears survive in one of Earth’s coldest environments, depending on a thick coat of fur to cover a warming fat layer. Its gleaming white coat serves as camouflage in snow and ice, but underneath is black skin to soak in the warming rays of the sun.
In the earlier days, hunting posed the greatest threats to these creatures. Today, however, the primary challenge is climate-induced loss of the polar bear’s sea ice habitat, alongside reduced access to their main prey.
“Without action on climate change, scientists predict we could lose wild polar bears by 2100. Two-thirds could be gone by 2050,” warned PBI.
Melting Sea Ice: What Can Be Done?
Last Jan. 9, the FWS announced the Conservation Management Plan's near-term survival strategy for polar bears, which calls for the reduced human-bear conflicts, management of subsistence harvest, habitat protection, and minimized contamination from oil spills.
But it’s all about sea ice, said PBI chief scientist Dr. Steven C. Amstrup of the polar bear’s woe. The animals can only reliably catch their primary prey from the sea ice surface, so satellite images showing the steady decrease of such habitat for more than 30 years spells grim prospects for them.
Amstrup reminded that humans are upsetting the natural balance of the planet by pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. Every ton of coal burned, for instance, adds 3.5 tons of CO2 into the air, and rising concentrations of this gas extend the retention of the sun’s heat before it escapes back into the vast space.
But the uncertainty about future climate remains in people’s hands, Amstrup added, writing that while humans cannot control natural climate variations, they can control the “slope of the rising baseline.”
“Taking the path outlined in Paris could avoid the worst that future global warming has to offer,” he said, referring to the Paris agreement’s mission to halt the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations and bring humanity to a new level baseline.