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Perspectives on Polar Bears

Watching an Arctic Icon Struggling to Survive


"Growing awareness of the threat of climate change to polar bears and their environment is a reason not to relax but to redouble our efforts."

— Kieran Mulvaney, Journalist

Neither I nor the crew that stood alongside me on the deck of the icebreaker 11 years ago was unaccustomed to encountering impressive wildlife in imposing settings.

Several of those who were with me in the Russian Arctic in 1998 had also been with me in the Antarctic in 1995 when a humpback whale swam curiously around the ship and even caused our vessel to shudder as it rubbed its body against the keel. Some had, like me, looked on with astonishment two years before that when three Ross Sea orcas appeared to attack one of our inflatable boats as if it were an ice floe and the crew it contained were penguins or seals.

And yet, even by those standards, there was something special about the animals we looked at on that day, the way the polar bears seemed to swagger defiantly as we steamed through their icy dominion.

"Oh yeah, look at him," marveled one of the deckhands as we gazed at one seemingly self-confident specimen. "He owns the ice."

That summer in the Arctic regions of Russia and Alaska set in motion a series of events that included a move from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage, the publication of a couple of books, and ultimately a return to the D.C. area where, in 2006, I once more became involved with polar bears.

Two polar explorers—Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen—aimed to be the first to reach the North Pole across the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean in summer. (Almost all North Pole attempts are made during the spring, after the complete darkness of winter but before the summer melt.) They were making the effort, not just for the glory of priority but also to raise awareness of climate change. To that end, they partnered with Greenpeace, which brought me onboard as part of a team to provide onshore logistics and media coordination.

Noble and unprecedented as Lonnie and Eric's effort was, the likelihood of media and public flocking to support something undertaken for a goal as nebulous as opposition to global warming seemed remote. What we needed was something more tangible, and we found it in the form of the polar bear. There's no secret that it is easier to engage public imagination by highlighting threats to charismatic megafauna than it is by expounding in general terms about the reasons for those threats, and so it proved in this instance. Twice, Eric and Lonnie appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"; and yet, at the time, the idea of talking about polar bears being at risk from climate change still seemed an oddly abstract concept.

No more. Polar bears have rapidly become the symbol of global warming, the totem of the 21st century environmental movement—the "new whales," as I call them.

It is really quite remarkable how swiftly the frame of reference of the discussion has shifted here in the United States during the past several years. When I was working with Lonnie and Eric just three years ago, public acceptance of the reality of global warming still had not fully taken hold. In a surprisingly short space of time, as the science has become stronger, Al Gore has become more prominent and, yes, polar bears have captured the imagination, that has changed. A few weeks ago I was in Greenland, coordinating another Arctic expedition for Greenpeace, this time supporting several teams of scientists from such places as the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This time, media flocked to see what we were up to, descending on the Greenlandic village of Tasiilaq from Germany, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom and India and representing outlets from The Economist to Al Jazeera and CNN.

But an acknowledgment of the issue’s reality is not enough, unless it is accompanied by a readiness for the kind of action that is required. In this area, there is less reason for optimism. Climate change legislation is stalled in the U.S. Congress, even as the Copenhagen session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations approaches in December. For those of us who have been involved in pushing the issue to this point, growing awareness of the threat to polar bears and their environment is a reason not to relax but to redouble our efforts.

Time is running out.

Just a couple of weeks ago, researchers demonstrated conclusively that Arctic temperatures are warmer now than at any point in the last 2,000 years. One week later, a new study in Science magazine underlined that loss of polar ice habitat is causing a rapid decline in the numbers of species such as ivory gull, Pacific walrus, ringed seal, hooded seal, and narwhal, as well as the polar bear. The study’s lead author argued that "the Arctic as we know it may soon be a thing of the past."

"The Arctic was a canary in the coal mine," writes Johann Hari of the Independent newspaper, one of the journalists to join us in Tasilaq. "The canary is half dead. It’s time to shout."

Follow Kieran’s journey into the center of Canada’s polar bear country in his travel story Arctic Blast in The Washington Post Magazine

Kieran Mulvaney is editor of SeaWeb's monthly newsletter, Ocean Update. He has published more than 400 articles in magazines and newspapers such as The Guardian, The Sunday Times Magazine, New Scientist, New Internationalist, BBC Wildlife, and E Magazine. He is the author of At the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Polar Regions (Island Press, Washington DC, 2001), and The Whaling Season: An Inside Account of the Struggle to Stop Commercial Whaling (Island Press, 2003). He is currently working on a book about the plight of the polar bears, due out next year.