Copenhagen Has Gone and the Polar Bears May be Next

Photo by Alun Anderson

With the Copenhagen conference over and efforts to combat climate change having run out of steam, my thoughts turn to a female polar bear that I ran into on the Arctic ice just 800 miles from the North Pole. I was on a ship travelling around Svalbard to research a book on the Arctic (After the Ice: Life, death and geopolitics in the new Arctic Harper-Smithsonian December 2009). The bear was far off in the distance but the moment she spotted the ship, she made a straight line for it across the ice, springing between nearby floes and paddling across wider gaps. When she arrived, she didn’t hesitate and confidently tried to climb on board. Luckily for us, she found the side of the ship a little high for her, even when she stretched right up on her hind-legs, so after playfully nibbling the bow and scratching the paintwork for a while, she switched tactics. She lay down on a nearby ice floe, gave a long-theatrical yawn, tucked her paws under her chin and fell asleep. That is to say, she closed her eyes and looked as though she were asleep, but there was something slightly suspicious about her cocked ears.

A polar bear that yawns and then....
Photo by Alun Anderson

appears to fall asleep on the ice nearby may not be as inncent as she seems.
Photo by Alun Anderson

Patient “still hunting” at the edge of a floe is the polar bear’s number one technique for catching seals. A bear may sit or stand like this for an hour or more, utterly still but alert, until the instant a seal surfaces. Then there is a flurry of bloody action. Knowing this, I resisted the temptation to see if I could climb down onto the ice to take a close-up photograph, beautiful though she was. Eventually, she grew bored with us, stood up, and strolled off far out to sea.

For me this was a magical encounter. The bear was truly in her element, the top predator of the Arctic: hunting a large ship suggests a swagger you won’t see in any other large mammal. That confidence comes in part from the high level of protection that the Norwegian government gives polar bears in this area. Although they were once shot for fun by tourists, the locals now joke that, “you are better off shooting a man than a bear: the authorities will investigate you less thoroughly.”

Thus the coming tragedy is all the more poignant. The Arctic’s 20-25,000 polar bears should really be doing very well now. But they cannot survive without ice to hunt seals from, and the summer sea is vanishing at frightening speed. Despite the protection they have, only a few polar bears will be left by the century’s end, living among the Canadian islands where the ice will linger longest. If the latest predictions that the Arctic summer ice will go between 2013 and 2050 (with 2030 the consensus of many scientists) prove true, then the bears will go very much earlier.

For the bears and the life of the entire Arctic ecosystem and the people who live in the Arctic, the slow progress at Copenhagen was unforgivable. It may just be possible to keep negotiating for a few more years and still act in time to stop the planet warming past the “dangerous” 2C limit (depending on which climate model you believe). But we have always known that the Arctic is where climate change will be felt first and most strongly (think over 7C warming by the century’s end); only very urgent, strong action would have given some of the ice a chance.

It is often said that the great unsolved scientific mystery of climate change is human psychology. Urgent, united action results only from the most immediate threats. If those threats come even a few years in the future, procrastination and squabbling are preferred. For my self-confident female bear, delay is lethal and delay is what we have got. She lives in a part of the Arctic where ice will go early. Thanks to our actions, thousands of miles to the south, her grandcubs will likely be the very last polar bears to be seen there.

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