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Northeast Passage: So, what of the polar bear?

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Geoff York

“Threats to polar bears will occur at different rates and times across their range although warming-induced habitat degradation and loss are already negatively affecting polar bears in some parts of their range.” – Eric Born, Chair of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group

File image of a polar bear. Photo: WWF / David JenkinsFile image of a polar bear. Photo: WWF / David Jenkins

As we cross the Gulf of Anadyr, my mind wanders back to the where it started. So what of the polar bear and the loss of sea ice? What can you or I do as individuals to really make a difference? Global climate change is such a huge and complex problem, is the situation hopeless?

Although this expedition has had encounters and experiences with many arctic species and Northern peoples, my work with WWF concerns the polar bear. The way I see it, my job is to save the Arctic, one polar bear at a time. Of all the animals we have seen, polar bears were among the least abundant, and least common. This could be a simple matter of timing as most bears should be out on the main pack ice and not on or near shore. Having also seen few ice seals, common in similar parts of Alaska, I wonder if it might be something more.

The lack of summer sea ice which made our trip possible makes life for polar bears much more difficult. As the ice recedes, bears are forced to travel far offshore in search of prey or to gamble and risk spending a summer on land as we saw near Cape Cheliuskin. 30 years of research in several parts of the Arctic have shown that polar bears prefer the near shore waters over the continental shelf, but that habitat is now missing in much of the Arctic during summer months. Staying with the pack ice also means a much longer trek for bears as the ice refreezes, for hunting, but more importantly for denning females seeking coastal habitat.

The simple solution for polar bears is to save their habitat from the worst of global warming. New research presented at the PBSG in Copenhagen this summer and to be released in a publication later this month shows that mitigating green house gas emissions, if we do it quickly and aggressively, will have a positive outcome on predicted sea ice loss and can still benefit polar bears. There is still reason to hope, and there is plenty we can all do to help.

We can contact our local, state, and national politicians and urge them to support a strong new climate treaty resulting from the upcoming meeting in Copenhagen this December. We can also ask them to support measures that will increase energy efficiency and the increased investment in and use of renewable energy. We can demand that they begin a transition away from our current, unsustainable carbon economy.

On a personal level, we can all take actions that, collectively, can make a huge difference. We can use less and recycle more. We can demand more goods made from recycled materials and from sustainable practices. We can drive less and bike more or use public transit. We can all make our homes more energy efficient with appropriate insulation, and modern low energy lighting fixtures and appliances. We can buy locally made goods whenever possible. Each act, however small, can and will make a difference.

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