Hard to See, Easy to Ignore: The Plight of the Polar Bear

Photo by gennie catastrophe | flickr.com

There has been a growing awareness about climate change and its drastic impacts globally over the past few decades. As concerned citizens, how do we deal with this information? Which levels of affected ecosystems have the least of our attention? I believe it is those that are the least visible to us. The polar bear is an excellent example of this. While it has, practically, become the poster species for global warming, to what extent do we truly understand the plight of the polar bear?

Increased temperatures have led to the depletion of ice floes, which polar bears depend on for their survival. In January 2011, a female polar bear swam for nine consecutive days in search of sea ice. The distance was said to be equal to sixteen marathons (about 700km). More importantly, the polar bear was severely emaciated and had lost 22% of her body weight. Researchers also believed that the polar bear lost her cub at sea. To understand the severity of this, we have to ask ourselves what would happen if such occurrences became more frequent in the following years.

Polar bears have been known to swim for about 100km at a time and over several consecutive hours, making the survival of this bear remarkable. When polar bears fast for several days, they burn their body fat and eventually, after longer periods of time, burn their protein for energy, which can be very dangerous. Sea ice plays is exceptionally important for their survival as it is used as their mating ground and as warmer climates melt sea ice, their reproductive success is severely affected. Polar bears also use sea ice to hunt seals and travel long distances.

So, what can we do about species that are so far out of our visibility that we tend to forget how directly our actions can affect them? We could start by accepting that if human activities are able to seriously deplete the quality of our global environment, we must make an effort to counteract our actions in a similar global manner. By taking small, but crucial, steps to reduce greenhouse gasses and supporting organizations and research that aim to protect these species, together we can circumvent the decline of polar bears.