July 20, 2009
Studies from NASA and many other U.S. agencies report the Arctic ice is melting at a rapid rate. Scientists say it's the most visible and dramatic evidence of global warming. One of the symbols of climate change in the Arctic is the polar bear. Lester Graham talked with the senior polar bear scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Steven Amstrup, about the future of the bear:
Steven Amstrup: Well, we believe that in the long term, polar bears are in trouble because of the projected changes in the sea ice resulting from global warming. Polar bears are entirely dependant on the surface of the sea ice to capture their prey - which are principally ringed seals and bearded seals. And, as the sea ice area declines, and as it is gone for longer periods of time, that, in essence, is a decline in the caring capacity of the environment for polar bears.
Lester Graham: Now, how much have polar bear populations declined?
Amstrup: We only have really good information on the trend in numbers for just a couple of populations. The best known are the ones in the Southern Beaufort Sea of Alaska and the Western Hudson Bay of Canada. And there we've documented that the populations are apparently declining now, and suggest that they will be continuing to decline in the future.
Graham: I'm wondering, can we - regular, everyday folks - do anything to help the polar bears?
Amstrup: Well, our studies were pretty conclusive that greenhouse gas contributions were the principle threat to polar bears. This was recently reaffirmed by the latest meeting of the polar bear specialists that met in Copenhagen. And so, if you take that to heart, you can say, 'what is my responsibility, as an individual, to do what I can to reduce my greenhouse gas footprint?' And I think that's where it really starts - people taking individual responsibility for the way that they live. And, of course, it goes beyond greenhouse gasses. It's, you know, 'what is our total footprint on the environment, in terms of the amount of pollutants, the amount of waste that we create' - whatever. Each individual has a certain amount of responsibility to monitor their impact on the environment in that way.
Graham: You know, down here, in the lower 48, I've only seen polar bears in a zoo, animated ones in Coca Cola commercials - there's a little bit of a disconnect. You have written dozens and dozens of scientific papers about the polar bear, I'm wondering - why you think we should care about them, and why do you care about polar bears?
Amstrup: Yeah, I've been studying polar bears for 28 years and the studies involve going out over the sea ice with a helicopter, searching for bears. And, after doing that for 28 years, I can still say that every field season, the first polar bear we see, it's this, '(gasp) wow, there's a real, wild polar bear.' They're just magic creatures. And I don't know that I can put my finger on exactly why I'm so impressed with polar bears. Technically, it's their ability to survive in this harsh environment, and their great beauty as they move across that harsh environment. And, as a scientist, my role is to try and collect the information, the technical information that will allow managers and policy makers to make the best decisions possible regarding the future of the polar bear.
Graham: Steven Amstrup is the senior polar bear scientist with the US Geological Survey. Thanks very much for talking with us.
Amstrup: Well, thank you.
Graham: I'm Lester Graham.
© 2009 Environment Report