February 27 is International Polar Bear Day. It is a day set aside to learn about polar bears and the threats they face for survival.
So first lets learn about polar bears.
Polar Bear ( Ursus maritimus ) lives in and around the Arctic Ocean throughout the circumpolar Arctic. They live on the ice near open water where seals, their favorite food, congregate. Living near the open water is not a problem for polar bears. They are very good swimmers Their Latin name means “sea bear”. Their body fat helps them float and their large front paws make great paddles.
Their range depends on pack-ice availability. The southern end of their range with James Bay in Canada being the southernmost point, fluctuates with the growing and receding ice. The pack-ice grows and expands in the fall with the onset of winter. Polar bears follow this growth extending their territory and hunting grounds. By spring with the warmer weather as the ice melts their range shrinks and the bears migrate north again. Sort of like bird migrations moving south for the winter except polar bears move south following the cold instead of escaping it. It also expands their range for more hunting grounds. More ice, more area to cover to find food and a mate.
There are currently 20 polar bear populations that are recognized. They live in the United States ( Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, and Russia.
Polar bears can make extensive migrations north and south following the ice. They also travel great distances in search of food and mates. Polar bears have been seen 100 miles from the nearest land- or icefall.
So polar bears need vast tracts of natural undisturbed habitat to support their diets and their families.
Polar bears are the youngest and largest of the world’s bear species. From nose to tail males measure eight to 11 feet weighing in at around 1,300 pounds and more than 1,700 pounds in some cases. Females measure six to eight feet nose to tail and usually weigh about half that of the males. Those huge bodies are covered in thick white fur with water-repellent guard hairs and dense underfur. Add to that a thick layer of blubber up to five inches thick, black skin, a fuzzy snout, small ears (to minimize heat loss from the ears) and a streamlined body and big wide paws and you’ve got an animal just made for freezing cold Arctic living.
Polar bears primarily eat ringed seals but also eat bearded seals, walrus, and beluga whales. They will also scavenge seal walrus and whale carcasses along the arctic coastline. They often only eat the seals skin and blubber leaving the rest of the animal for other animals to eat. So the polar bear is critical to the Arctic food chain.
Like other bears polar bears breed late in life, have small litters, and produce few young in their lifetime. For such large animals they start off life very small. Polar bear cubs are born with their eyes closed and weighing about the mass of a squirrel.
With a healthy environment these wonderful animals can live up to 25 to 30 years in the wild.
That brings us to the risks they face…from us humans. Back in the 1970s hunting regulations were established and helped their population grow. Today their population is a stable 20,000 to 25,000. See what regulations and protections can do?
Now they face the threat of Climate Change. With the Global Climate rising the Arctic sea-ice is melting. Polar bears need the sea-ice for hunting and breeding. They have to swim farther and farther between ice packs to find food since the ice has shrunk. Those great distances are too far even for great swimmers like polar bears. Since 2004 scientists have found more polar bears swimming in the open waters at greater distances and drowning along with their cubs.
Since the ice free periods have increased scientists have seen breeding rates and cub litter survival decline. Polar bear survival in all age classes has declined. Skull size and body length have decreased. Increased starving and fasting and nutritional stress are just a few of the consequences to polar bears attributed to Climate Change. It is all a chain reaction that is set into motion. Climate Change is not about getting hotter but chain of events that are triggered as a result.
Eight of the world’s polar bear populations are now declining due to Climate Change.
Now that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average scientists predict that two-thirds of the world population with be gone by 2050 and polar bears will be almost extinct by the end of the century. Sounds like you have time right? Wrong. Scientist have found that the ice is melting much faster than predicted meaning their extinction will likely be sooner than later.
Climate Change is not something you fix tomorrow and it is all better next week. It takes longer than our lifetime for the Earth to reverse itself when we DO finally DO what scientists recommend…globally.
If Climate Change isn’t enough poisonous pesticides from the US are making their way north to the Arctic by land water and air. Poison becomes more concentrated as it makes its way up the food chain. That is because the top predators eat a lot of poisoned animals to survive so they have more poison that accumulates in them. This only exacerbates an already stressed species struggling to survive a warming Arctic.
Again, the domino effect. As Arctic ice melts it makes it easier to bring sips into the Arctic where they could not get through before because the ice was so thick and the cold conditions so dangerous. So the greedy oil companies are now taking advantage of the easy to reach Arctic to suck what oil they can, much like an addict. The disruption from ships coming through and drilling adds even more stress to the bears. Then of course this creates an evil loop. They are drilling for more oil which melted the sea ice making it easier to drill for more oil in the Arctic which put the polar bears in this bad situation in the first place.
By their way of thinking if you get your fingers caught in the door the best way to fix is close the door tighter.
What to do what to do. One start is fighting any government that is working to pollute our planet. After all, that is what set Climate Change in motion, our unabated misuse, abuse and polluting of the Earth. Right now Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently announced plans to dramatically expand offshore oil drilling in all oceans along U.S. coasts. That includes California and the Arctic. He is taking advantage of the melting Arctic. Go to Center for Biological Diversity to send a letter to Interior Secretary Zinke telling him what is wrong with this picture. Five minutes of your time to help save polar bears and many other species.
Polar Bears are one of our many Forgotten Nations. They suffer through no fault of their own but because of our human ignorance and now our apathy. At least for International Polar Bear Day we can remember them and learn abut them but the best way to honor them is to dedicate this one day to do something to help them. Maybe even remember them for more than just one day. Act on our convictions every day to protect the Earth. Polar bears need more than just our thoughts and prayers.