What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic

 

Every year in the fall a team of scientists, conservationists and volunteers from Polar Bears International migrate to Churchill, a small community located on the western shore of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. Churchill has often been celebrated as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the world’, but in the last 20 years, that meaning has become significant in a different way.

 

Since the 1980’s scientists, have watched the polar bear population in western Hudson Bay decline. During this time monitoring polar bears in the region, numbers have dropped 30%, although the reasons for this are complex, ultimately most of the decline can be linked to an extended time period on land, where polar bears are forced to fast without food for a month longer than their ancestors did.

“We have known for a long time that what polar bears need is sea ice”, explained Kt Miller who has been working with Polar Bears International for the last eight years in media and outreach, “sea ice is essential for hunting as well as home for the polar bear’s prey—seals.” 

A recent study found that September Arctic sea ice in Hudson Bay is now declining at a rate of 12.8 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Photo: Polar Bear's International

It is not just climate change that is affecting the species. Other research on polar bears highlighted a “silent epidemic” caused by human chemical pollution. These studies showed that high amounts of toxic pollution, including PFCs, are finding their way into the arctic ecosystems via wind and ocean currents from major cities and industrial areas. This chemical cocktail is ingested by fish, seals and polar bears and changes the chemical make-up of the animals in the region.

In a research study conducted by Dr. Thea Bechshoft, staff scientist for Polar Bears International, it was found that the chemical cocktail has a direct influence on polar bear’s hormonal-system, “including hormones that are essential to growth, reproduction, and metabolism.”* This includes shrinking genitalia, suppression of their immune system, which helps them fight off disease, and changes to their skull bone structure.

Photo: Polar Bear's International

The most shocking part of this research is that none of it is new. It has been clear for years now that climate change coupled with human pollution is making polar bears more vulnerable to extinction than they have ever been before. 

What is new are the affects of climate change, which are being felt much closer to home. When your home is threatened by flood, bushfires or drought it is easy to focus on the issues surrounding you. However, what happens in the arctic doesn’t stay in the arctic and the issues that are facing polar bears are relevant to us now more than ever—as people far away are now feeling the similar strains. Polar bears, however, are still very much the canaries in the coal mine.

When discussing the issue with KT Miller from Polar Bears International, she explained that there are several ways that the organisation is trying to mitigate the decline of the species. “Working to maintain healthy polar bear populations that could repopulate regions of the arctic” is a focus at this stage she pointed out. This includes working with communities in the arctic to ensure that there is less human-bear conflict. While important, these are only preventative measures. What is essential is to stop sea ice from melting which is caused by climate change. 

Photo: Polar Bear's International

“If we choose to act in time, we can still conserve polar bears” explains Kt, “choosing renewable energies, voting for governments and policies that combat climate change and supporting science are all ways you can support a better future for polar bears and for all of us. What is most important is not becoming complacent. As a society we need to keep talking about the issue and keep it at the forefront of the global conversation.” 

To learn more about Polar Bears International, or more information about polar bears visit:

Polar Bear International Full article on Dr Bechshoft's research

 

About Nat Segal

Nat Segal is a professional skier and producer. Originally from Australia, she is known for her high energy, adventurous spirit and driven personality. For six years Nat traveled the world as a top competitor in freeride skiing events taking podiums on both the Freeride and Freeskiing World Tours. She has since shifted gears away from competition towards film, writing and ski expeditions." www.nataliesegal.com@nat_segal

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