Biologist Andrew Delaucher didn’t think about climate change when he began studying polar bears in Hudson Bay in the 1980s. About a decade into his career, the polar bears he was studying were coming onto land early and returning to ice later in the season as human-induced global warming reduced sea ice. The situation began to emerge.
It didn’t take long for the world to notice, he said, and soon the study was picked up by the media, conservation groups and climate change deniers, and the polar bear had become a symbol of global warming for better or worse.
“The polar bears were just an early harbinger of change,” Desrochers said.
I understand the situation. Polar bears are one of our favorite furry mammals — from afar.
However, as a symbol of the fight against climate change, it has its drawbacks, including positioning the issue as “far away” for Canadians living outside the Arctic Circle.
Inuit hunters have been slammed and those who want to question climate science have targeted the simplistic message that polar bears are in danger.
Now, with extreme weather manifesting across the country and more frequent and severe wildfires, droughts and floods, climate change is becoming a more pressing issue for many, sometimes literally in their backyards. Sometimes you don’t need a remote location, Desrochers said. mascot.
the whole26:26For better or worse, how the polar bear became a climate icon.
Polar bears’ growing notoriety
For Desrochers, polar bears became “an accidental symbol of climate change” decades ago.
It started by monitoring polar bear numbers, health and survival to support polar bear hunting. Meanwhile, other scientists were gathering data on sea ice, but no one put these two things together.
In 1993, Desrochers and another scientist, Ian Sterling, co-authored the paper “Possible Effects of Climate Warming on Polar Bears.”
In the Arctic, the ocean freezes on its surface and forms sea ice, which reflects sunlight and helps keep the climate cool. Ice is also part of the ecosystem, retaining nutrients and, as it melts, contributes to entire food webs, from phytoplankton to large animals like the seals that polar bears eat.
Some sea ice melts in the summer and reforms in the winter, but data are beginning to show that sea ice trends are changing, and it’s the habitat polar bears rely on.
When Desrochers and his colleagues reassessed the relationship between polar bears and climate change in 2004, the paper “ignited interest” in the media, Desrochers said.
It wasn’t just the press. In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore featured his vignette of an animated drowning polar bear in his documentary. inconvenient truthNature conservation groups and climate change deniers were also paying attention.
“It’s become something of a villain for people and interest groups who don’t want to see climate action, that is, control of greenhouse gas emissions,” Desrochers said. “The polar bear as a symbol of climate change has had some positives and negatives.”
Pictures are just part of the story
In 2017, a conservation group released a video of an emaciated polar bear that went viral. One version of the video displays the text “This is what climate change looks like.”
The story uncovered was more nuanced, with Nunavut people warning that it showed polar bears coming to the end of their lives rather than the proposed dramatic image of global warming.
In the case of Derrick Pottle, an Inuk hunter and guide in Nunaziabut, north of Labrador, a polar bear, or Nanuk Inuktitut conjures up a very different image of climate-susceptible animals.
It is “probably the most powerful animal or mammal in our homeland,” he said. “We understand its strength, its intelligence…if it lives It is the will not to be, and it represents who we are.”
For Pottle, polar bears as climate icons “had a negative impact on our lives here up north.”
Now in his 60s, he has captured 10 polar bears in his lifetime.
“You are so happy and proud to bring home a source of food and meat and an opportunity to earn a few bucks for your family. Or you wear clothes,” he said. Told.
Polar bear harvesters used to make as much as $20,000 a hide, Poeltl says, and now they’re lucky to get $5,000. He said activists against polar bear hunting are making matters worse.
Twelve polar bears are legally hunted in Nunatsiavut each year. In 1973, Arctic nations around the world signed an agreement to internationally protect polar bears, and in 2008 the United States declared polar bears an endangered species. Canada designated the animal as a Species of Special Concern in 2011.
For pottle, there are more pressing signs of climate change than for polar bears, including impacts on hunting and trapping. In the 1980s, he said, water that was frozen by November now freezes in early January and melts in April, not May or June.
“One time I was able to read the ice and understand how it was formed,” he said. “Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Melting sea ice is changing polar bear habitats and will continue to do so, but for now some polar bear populations are recovering, and Pottle says he has experience as a hunter and guide. I am worried that I am not being taken seriously.
Subpopulations provide a more nuanced picture
Biologist Andrew Delaucher says polar bear health is a “complex issue.”
“We have more [polar] It’s more bearable now than it was in 1973,” he said.
“The problem is that we also have very good information that at least three populations of polar bears are declining due to sea ice loss, and we suspect that pattern will increase.”
These complexities have been exploited by those who challenge the scientific consensus that global warming is real and is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
“Climate change deniers tried to criticize polar bears because if they felt they could change the course of public opinion about the link between sea ice loss and polar bears, the whole climate change problem could somehow be resolved. Because I think it will be clarified in .
There are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in the Arctic around the world, and there is no “one size fits all” picture of how they are responding to climate change, Derocher said.
“All the world’s polar bears have experienced changes in their access to sea ice over the last 30 years,” said Jasmine Ware, a polar bear biologist for the Government of Nunavut. Polar bear population.
The impact of these sea ice changes on polar bears depends on where they live in the Arctic, Ware said.
Churchill, Manitoba, near where Andrew DeLocher is working, is the southernmost polar bear range.
As global warming continues to accelerate, “From James Bay to the Arctic highlands, we’re seeing more and more bears heading to landfills. This is the recipe for the problem,” Desrochers said. I’m here.
coexistence is key
In July, a report co-authored by Derocher warned that human food was a “new threat” to polar bears, highlighting the need to keep polar bears away and keep things like trash to keep people safe. emphasized.
For decades, Churchill, Manitoba has set an example for other Arctic regions by taking steps to improve safety by securing trash and creating warning systems.
Each year when the ice melts, several polar bears make their way ashore, passing through the community of Arbiat, Nunavut, to the west shore of Hudson Bay. According to Ware, this region has the highest number of interactions between humans and polar bears. .
“There’s a change,” Ware said. “Bears can be encountered at any time. [There is] I understand very strongly that this is a dangerous experience and can be fatal. “
In 2018, Aaron Gibbons died protecting his children from polar bears while he was out hunting.
Since 2010, monitors have patrolled Arviat to keep polar bears out of the community.
Leo Ikahiku has no idea when he will show up when he gets a call about a bear. “It’s always a guessing game,” he said. “Do bears run or just stand?”
Ikakhik uses a loud bear banger to deter bears.
Beyond the polar bear as a climate symbol
Kari Marie Norgard, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, can understand why the polar bear has become a popular symbol of change in the Arctic.
“It’s this iconic animal that kids are attached to or in a way, but I think we need a lot of symbols, not just one,” she said.
“Any kind of symbol for collective action… would be more helpful.”
Norgaard said he may be talking about how climate change is affecting someone and an individual rather than an icon.
Norgaard is working with the Karuk tribe of California to revive indigenous fire practices. This helps manage wildfires and the risks faced by neighboring communities.
“We are not powerless, but we need to understand what we can do.”
The polar bear has become an ‘accidental icon’ of climate change. Time to rethink it?
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