Seeing polar bears in the wild would fulfill a lifelong dream for many people. But for Geoff York, hanging out with polar bears is all in a day’s work.
As the Head of Species Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Arctic Program, York travels the world studying polar bears and their habitat. Some days he commutes to work in a helicopter, his business suit is a down parka, and he has no qualms about getting up close and personal with a thousand-pound bear.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be able to work in the high north with this
remarkable animal,” he says of his collaboration with
For polar bears, of course, bitter cold is just right. Except for pregnant females that den in preparation for the birth of their cubs, polar bears don’t hibernate. Most bears spend their lives wandering the open ice. But as ice-free summers get longer, the season for hunting seals gets shorter. At the outer limit, recent research suggests that polar bears can survive 180 days per year without food before they start seeing negative consequences (mortality, reproductive failure). In some places they are now coming dangerously close to that extreme. An example WWF sites is the Western Hudson polar bear population which has already declined by approximately twenty two percent over the last two decades.
But all is not lost. Far from it, in fact. Scientists leveraging donations
from Arctic Home have
identified locations in the extreme northern arctic where summer sea ice is
likely to persist for decades to come. Cold, remote, and difficult to access,
these 500,000 square miles are everything a polar bear needs. Now, building on
the more than 2-million dollars donated to WWF by
There are between twenty and twenty-five thousand polar bears on earth, spread over 19 different subpopulations. According to Clive Tesar, also of WWF, “while it is likely that the High Arctic islands will play a crucial role in the future of polar bears and other Arctic life, it remains one of the least understood and studied parts of our planet. To better understand this region and its future importance, we need to first learn more about what is happening there today- and that will require both new research and the pulling together of any locally held knowledge by the people who call it home”.
Long-term questions require long-term solutions, which is why the Arctic
Home collaboration between
Recently, Tesar and a crew of researchers explored the area aboard a 50-foot steel-hulled sailboat, sponsored by Canon Europe, built to withstand the rugged conditions that polar bears navigate with such ease. “High Arctic research can involve going into areas with no people, no communities, nowhere to fly from, no resupply, no comfortable place to rest,” he says. “It’s just enormously expansive. And expensive.”
Working with polar bears is significantly more complicated — not to mention dangerous — than working with white mice in a laboratory. The gold standard for population analysis is called “mark-recapture” and it requires flying over the ice, finding bears, and then actually handling tranquilized animals. In this way scientists can determine the age, weight, gender, and condition of the animal. Sometimes the females are given radio collars for further tracking. (Males can’t be collared; their necks are bigger than their heads and the collars fall right off.)
A less invasive method includes aerial surveys to count bears from helicopters, which is used to estimate population size. Because this project is so critical and because there is still so much to learn, WWF is employing an ongoing “all of the above” approach to sampling methods.
While polar bears are the most high-profile residents, the arctic is home to many species, including animals as small as one millionth of a gram and as big as 100 tons. Nutrients flowing off the ice attract single-celled organisms, which give rise to massive blooms of plankton, which are followed by shrimplike creatures, then arctic cod, polar bears, and all the way up to bowhead whales.
In addition to funding wildlife biologists’ research, donations generated through Arctic Home goes to WWF to support chemists, economists, and a host of other specialists. Considerable attention is also placed on working with the scattered local communities in the far north. For the area to remain a place where polar bears can thrive, all of the human stakeholders need to become involved in the effort and contribute their unique knowledge. The important thing about the High Arctic is that it’s resilient to the climate-driven change that is sweeping the rest of the Arctic. Keeping it that way means that any mineral exploration must be carefully managed, marine pollutants have to be minimized, and unnecessary conflicts between bears and humans should be eliminated.
In a perfect world, polar bears wouldn’t need a safe haven. But in the face of an uncertain future, it’s heartening to know that there’s something we can all do to make sure that such a place exists.
To drive further awareness and donations, an interactive Arctic Home display has been traveling across Canada making stops in Toronto, Montreal and