The future does not look bright for polar bears. Scientists have projected that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population will have vanished by 2050, with the species nearing extinction by 2100. The main culprit is human-caused climate change. Polar bears are dependent on the Arctic sea ice as a platform from which to hunt seals. The extent of the Arctic ice has decreased dramatically in recent years as temperatures have risen, and at this rate, it’s only a matter of time until the Arctic Ocean is entirely ice-free in the summer.
When the ice melts earlier than usual, the bears don’t have enough time to build up the necessary fat reserves to sustain themselves until the next winter freeze. Melting ice also requires them to swim for longer distances, further depleting their energy. Reports are increasing of bears starving to death, drowning, or even resorting to cannibalism because of the changing conditions.
Animal activists must constantly make choices about the best ways to help animals. With only so many hours in the day, do we work to ban puppy mills, halt cruel laboratory experiments, stop the sale of fur, or take action in other campaigns that we’re passionate about? Personally, I often find myself focusing on the 10 billion land animals slaughtered for food every year in the U.S. simply because of the sheer number of suffering animals. Current estimates put the polar bear population at fewer than 25,000, a tiny figure by comparison. As sad as it is to see polar bears go, we must ask: Why is it so important to save them?
The looming extinction of polar bears is a warning for humans. Arctic ice acts as a cooling system for the planet, reflecting the sun’s energy back into space. As the sea ice disappears, the black water beneath it starts absorbing heat, accelerating the warming process and melting additional ice. Rising ocean levels are a very real threat to the hundreds of millions of people who live within 30 feet of sea level. By saving polar bears, we may also be saving ourselves.
Polar bears are the top predators of the Arctic. The carcasses of bear-killed seals provide a major food source to scavengers such as the Arctic fox. We don’t know exactly what will happen as polar bears vanish, but biologists have observed in many ecosystems that the disappearance of the apex predator sets off a chain reaction in many other species, perhaps leading to additional extinctions.
Polar bears are unique—they are an elegant expression of nature’s ability to fill the narrowest niche with a perfectly adapted animal. Of course, not all evolutionary experiments are ultimately successful, but polar bears were doing fine in their particular niche until we cranked up the heat. It saddens me that the disappearance of this once-thriving species will be the direct result of human dependence on carbon-based fuels.
In 2008, after years of pressure from environmental groups, the U.S. government listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of climate change. So far, the government has refused to use the Endangered Species Act as a lever for climate change legislation, but a recent ruling by a federal judge may soon change that. The judge has ordered the Interior Department to reconsider granting endangered status to polar bears. Changing the status of polar bears from threatened to endangered could lead to stronger protections for the bears and help for all species at risk from the effects of climate change.
You can help polar bears by supporting legislation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions and by acting to reduce your own carbon footprint. One of the best ways to do this is to stop eating meat.