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Polar bear week is celebrated the first week of November every year. The reason this time is chosen is because it marks the beginning of the fall polar bear migration to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada where they wait for the ice to freeze on the Hudson Bay so they can make their way to their hunting grounds to find their favorite prey, seals. What has been happening over the years, is it is taking longer for the sea ice to melt, as well as melting sooner at the end of the season than it has in the past. Polar bears, along with many other arctic species that rely on the sea ice are being affected. We took a quick look deeper into what makes polar bears the top predator in their ecosystem, why their numbers are declining, and what is being done to help. Even if we don’t live anywhere near where polar bears are found, we can still take action to save them all over the world.
The Not-So-White Bear of the Arctic
You heard right. Polar bears aren’t actually white. Their skin is in fact black, and their fur is transparent. Their fur has a hollow core that reflects and refracts light from the sun and snow to make it appear white. This is actually an important adaptation that helps the bears reflect the heat from the sun down to their hair shaft so they are able to absorb it with their black skin. Polar bear fur even grows on the bottom of their feet to provide an extra layer of protections from the cold and snow, as well as giving them better traction on the ice.
There are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in the world, and 13 of those subpopulations can be found in Canada. Polar bears are considered marine mammals, just like whales, seals, and dolphins, and they are the only species of bear that depends on the ocean ecosystem to survive. Their scientific name, Ursus maritimus, actually means “sea bear.”
As the largest land carnivore, male polar bears can reach up over 9 feet long and almost 1,800 pounds. Their diet consists almost exclusively of seals. To conserve energy, they will wait for hours by seals’ cone-shaped breathing holes in the sea ice for a seal to surface. When they do, the bear will stand on its hind legs and smack the seal on the head with both of its front paws to stun it.
As the top of their food chain, polar bears play an extremely important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Their life is tied to the sea ice and to the abundant world that blooms, swims, and paddles beneath their paws.
Warmer Weather and Toxic Pollution
Thankfully, climate change is becoming more of a topic being talked about in homes, the news, and the capital. While not everyone may believe it is “real” or see direct effects to them, science is proving that temperatures all over the world are continuing to increase at record levels. One of the places seeing the biggest changes is the arctic.
The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet, shrinking the Arctic sea ice cover by 14% per decade. Compared to the median sea ice cover recorded between 1981-2010, we have lost about 770,000 square miles, an area larger than Alaska and California combined. That is crucial habitat needed for wildlife that relies on the sea ice for shelter, food, protection, raising young, and so much more. One of the species being most directly affected are polar bears. Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears have been listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act since May 2008.
Plans for drilling for oil and petroleum in the arctic would mean even bigger threats to polar bears and arctic wildlife. Almost 1.6 million acres are at risk for exploration and drilling. The weight of the 90,000 pound thumper trucks that direct their low frequency booms into the fragile tundra looking for oil can crush denning bears and cause irreversible disturbances. Offshore petroleum installations and operations in the Arctic are expected to increase in number. This expansion can create opportunities for polar bears to ingest oil through grooming and through eating contaminated prey. The ingested oil can cause liver and kidney damage, and has long-term toxicity. Bears can be poisoned by even a limited amount of oil on their fur. More machines also mean more oil spills, and with no current proven effective method for cleaning or controlling an oil spill in icy, arctic waters, this would mean the death of wildlife across the food chain.
Polar Bears International - Real life Arctic Warriors
As the only organization dedicated solely to the conservation of wild polar bears, Polar Bears International has taken great steps into making a difference for this species. Polar Bears International (PBI) was founded in 1992 by a small group of passionate conservationists and scientists. Their mission is to conserve polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. They have an open door policy to share any work and knowledge they find to anyone looking to learn and also make a difference. Through media, science, and advocacy, their goal is to inspire people to care about the Arctic, the threats to its future, and the connection between this remote region and our global climate. Members of the team include leading polar bear scientists who broaden impact by collaborating with other experts. PBI works with a wide range of government agencies and universities to other NGOs and northern communities. You can learn more about the amazing research they are a part of here.
How You Can Help
While helping to save a large carnivore species that lives in the arctic can seem like a daunting task from our warm and breezy homes, wherever they may be, it is not out of reach and there are always actions we can each take to help make a difference.
Use your vote to support conservation efforts. Vote for elected officials who recognize that our carbon-based society isn't sustainable and who will work to take action on climate change, and then share information on these candidates with others.
2. Connect your utility account to Arcadia.
There are no contracts and no changes in service. They match you with clean energy like solar and wind in your area. You save money, work towards a renewable energy future, and support Polar Bears International at the same time. It is the easiest two minutes you will spend that will have lasting impacts.
3. Get involved with Polar Bears International.
Whether you are a student, business owner, teacher, or community member, Polar Bears International has tons of resources you can use to get involved in polar bear conservation. From taking the thermostat challenge, to volunteering as a field ambassador, to making a donation, by choosing to support PBI, you are supporting science, education, and advocacy that will not only help save the polar bear species and their habitat but also preserve the climate that has allowed humans to flourish.
However you choose to make the world a better place, we would love to hear about it and continue to support and cheer you on. Leave a comment below with your favorite polar bear fact, or actions you are taking. Be sure to check out our Wildlife Guardians Facebook page where people from all over come together to share hacks, cute animal photos and videos, and support each other in creating a world where all living things can thrive.