Climate Change and the Polar Bear

Lorna Griggs

05 Jun 2018

NWS Lorna addresses the impact of climate change on the King of the Arctic

Despite certain presidents who continue to deny the reality of climate change, as someone who has worked in Polar travel for many years now, I can tell you how real it is – I've seen it happening. Like many of us in the industry, we continually face questions about how the Arctic and Antarctic are changing. While Antarctica shows its scars from a warming planet through giant calving ice sheets, the Arctic has a rather more poignant symbol of climate change: the polar bear.

Many of you will have read the articles published earlier this year following deeply disturbing footage of a starving bear as he took what are likely to have been his final steps in a desperate search for food. In brief, those articles shine a light on recent research highlighting the need for a polar bear to consume at least one fully grown ringed seal (or three juveniles) every 10 days in order to survive. The findings were from studies conducted by the US Geological Survey and UC Santa Cruz, who followed and analysed nine bears over a 3-year period. Their findings show that the metabolism of the bears is up to 50% faster than previously thought, meaning that the energy they use during hunting takes a bigger toll than previously believed – should those hunts be unsuccessful, the bears face plummeting body weight and a fight for survival. During the 3-year research period, five of the nine bears studied were unable to hunt their necessary quota of seals, with researchers noting that these five bears lost as much as 20kg in weight over the course of a 10-day study period.

The hunting ground of the polar bear is the ice that covers the northernmost reaches of our fragile planet, and that ice is rapidly receding. With less and less ice each year (studies show an average decline of 13% year on year), and temperatures steadily rising, the world the bears rely on is disappearing before our eyes. The bears are being forced to either head miles from land on pieces of drift ice in search of the more solid pack ice – their prime hunting ground – or tough it out on land. The latter of those choices means more and more bears are heading to towns in search of food, bringing them into closer contact with humans than ever before. This of course brings its own risks – the number of bears being shot for being too close to human settlements has increased dramatically. For the bears who head north with the receding ice, their shrinking territory makes for tough hunting.

Our 2017 season in Svalbard started in May, with most of the archipelago still encased in ice. Navigation was tough for our ships, but bears were in their element. While our guests shivered on deck, the bears rolled in the snow and watched eagerly at seal breathing holes. In stark and distressing contrast, our 2018 season began just a few weeks ago after the warmest winter on record for the archipelago, and reports from our guides indicate a noticeable increase in the number of starving bears who already look too thin to make it through the season.

I was last in Svalbard in July of 2016. Even then, times were tough. Never has so much pressure been put on the mother bears to teach hunting skills to their young. We encountered a bear wandering a deserted beach, far too thin, and unlikely to see the end of August. Even more heart-wrenching was the dead bear we found washed up on the pebbles, so thin it looked rather like a hollow shell of a bear. Our Expedition Leader Mats, a guide with more than 30 years in the industry, advised then that this poor youngster had likely found himself stranded with no source of food as the ice receded (at the time the ice was a full day’s sailing away) and despite a desperate attempt to make a swim for it, he had simply been too weak and the current had swept his body back to shore.

Don’t get me wrong, we have been incredibly lucky in showing our guests healthy bears hunting across the pack ice. Finding the bears has never been tougher, but with the best guides in the industry we have been lucky enough to give our travellers a glimpse into the world of the bears as they sleep, hunt and comb the beaches. There are certainly bears who are adapting in an ever-changing world, and winning the hearts of travellers intrepid enough to venture north. But sadly, with bear numbers in decline, temperatures on the rise, and certain world leaders determined to stick their heads in the proverbial sand, the fate of the bears and their habitat rests with just a few.

I’m often asked why I work in Polar travel. Why would I send people to the ends of the earth knowing that their trip would, in fact, contribute to climate change? My answer is this.

All travel will impact the environment, whether you jump on a plane to India to watch tigers, pile your tent into your car for a weekend on the coast, or venture onto a ship headed for the poles. These days it’s hard to go a day without having some impact on the world we live in... But what if your next trip moved you to the point where you woke up every day determined to make a change? What if I could show you things that would move you to tears, render you speechless, and have you racing home to tell everyone you knew about what you experienced? Well that’s Svalbard. We hear this every year. These trips are life-changing (yes, I'm biased, but you can see what our clients say on our main Svalbard page and in blogs like Tony’s), and people rarely come home from the Arctic the same as they arrived. Suddenly these people are recycling with renewed enthusiasm, switching to green energy providers, fighting the corporations who want to drill in the Arctic, and petitioning governments to make real and lasting changes to protect the world of the bears. I have long since believed that when people fall in love with a place, they will strive to protect it. That’s what the bears need now more than ever before.

Join us in the Arctic. Learn about the bears. See the challenges they face first-hand. I promise that once you do, those news articles won’t be just words, the statistics won’t be just numbers, and the bears might make it a few more summers.

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Comments

Katie Losey

6/6/2018 11:36 PM

Powerful piece. Thank you for your incredible dedication to connecting people to these places in an effort to save them.

Amanda

6/6/2018 7:06 PM

A wonderful article, thank you. I couldn’t agree more... 2 years ago I travelled to Alaska & it changed my life. I came back determined to make a difference. To raise awareness. To recycle more and to actively reduce my waste and carbon footprint. I signed up on a trip to volunteer in Borneo planting trees to help with deforestation. And I signed up for your trip to Svalbard to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing polar bears in the wild. I leave in 5 days and I can’t wait to be changed even more.

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