Biologist Andrew Derocher didn’t think about climate change when he first started studying polar bears in Hudson Bay in the 1980s. About a decade into his career, a picture began to emerge: as the sea ice thinned due to human-induced global warming, the polar bears he studied landed earlier and returned to the ice later during the season.
It didn’t take long for the world to notice, and the study was soon picked up by the media, conservationists and climate deniers, he said, turning the polar bear into a symbol of global warming, for better or worse.
“Polar bears were just an early harbinger of change,” Desrochers said.
This status was understandable; Polar bears are the type of furry mammal we love to love – from a distance.
But as a symbol of the fight against climate change, it has its drawbacks, including, as Desrocher notes, positioning the issue as “remote and remote” for Canadians living outside the Arctic.
Inuit hunters have been criticized, and those who want to question climate science have targeted the often simplistic messages about the dangers of polar bears.
Now, with extreme weather across the country — more frequent and severe wildfires, droughts and floods — Desrochet said climate change is becoming a more pressing issue for many people, sometimes literally in their backyards, who don’t need a remote consideration. mascot.
What on Earth26:26How polar bears have become a symbol of the climate, for better or worse.
Polar bear’s path to fame
For Desrochers, the story of how polar bears became “an accidental icon of climate change” goes back several decades.
It all started with observing animals to support polar bear hunting – monitoring their numbers, health and survival. In the meantime, other scientists have been collecting data on sea ice, but no one has put the two together.
In 1993, Desrochers and another scientist, Ian Stirling, co-authored the paper “Possible Effects of Climate Warming on Polar Bears”.
In the Arctic, the oceans freeze on the surface, forming sea ice, which plays a role in keeping the climate cool by reflecting sunlight. Ice is also part of the ecosystem, it contains nutrients and contributes to the entire food web when it melts, from phytoplankton to large animals like seals eaten by polar bears.
Some sea ice melts in the summer and recovers in the winter, but data has begun to show that the sea ice trend is changing, and with it the habitat that polar bears rely on.
When Desrochers and his colleagues reassessed the connection between polar bears and climate change in 2004, Desrochet said, the article “generated interest” from the media.
The news outlets were not alone. In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore showed an animated vignette of a polar bear drowning in his documentary. An inconvenient truth. Conservation groups and climate deniers have also taken note.
“It has become a kind of villain for people and those interest groups that didn’t want to see climate action, that is, control of greenhouse gas emissions,” Desrochers said. “Polar bears as a symbol of climate change have their pros and cons.”
The picture is just part of the story
In 2017, a conservation group released a video of an emaciated polar bear that went viral. In one version of the video, the text reads: “This is what climate change looks like.”
The story that emerged was more subtle, and people in Nunavut warned that the footage showed a polar bear at the end of its life, rather than a dramatic picture of global warming as suggested.
For Derrick Pottle, Inuk hunter and guide in Nunatsiavut, northern Labrador, polar bear or nanuk in inuktitut conjures up a very different image than an animal vulnerable to climate change.
“This is probably the strongest animal or mammal that we have in our homeland,” he said. “We understand his strength, his intelligence… the will he has to survive, and he represents who we are.”
For Pottle, the polar bear as a symbol of climate “has negatively affected the way we live here in the north.”
Now in his sixties, he has killed ten polar bears in his lifetime.
“You are so happy and so proud that you brought back food and a source of meat and an opportunity to earn a few dollars for your family, or you put clothes on your back,” he said.
Polar bear gatherers used to make up to $20,000 per pelt, Pottle said, but now they’ll be lucky if they get $5,000. He said activists fighting against polar bear hunting are making things more difficult.
In Nunatsiavut, a dozen polar bears are legally hunted each year. In 1973, Arctic countries from around the world signed an agreement to conserve polar bears internationally, and in 2008 the United States listed the polar bear as an endangered species; In 2011, Canada listed the animal as a species of particular concern.
For Pottle, there are more important signs of climate change than for polar bears, such as the impact on hunting and trapping. Water that used to freeze by November of the 1980s now freezes in early January and melts in April instead of May or June, he said.
“Once we were able to read the ice and understand how it formed,” he said. “Half the time you don’t know what you’re getting into.”
While melting sea ice is changing polar bear habitats and will continue to do so, some subpopulations of this animal have now recovered, and Pottle worries that his experience as a hunter and guide is not being taken seriously.
Subpopulations give a more detailed picture
Biologist Andrew Derocher says polar bear health is a “complex issue”.
“We have more [polar] bears now than in 1973,” he said.
“The problem is that we also have very good information that at least three polar bear populations have declined due to loss of sea ice, and we suspect this trend will only increase.”
These complexities have been exploited by people who oppose the scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels.
“Climate change deniers tried to attack polar bears because I think that if they felt they could change the course of public opinion about the relationship between the disappearance of sea ice and polar bears, then the whole problem of climate change would just somehow be solved.” Desrochers said. .
There are 19 subpopulations of polar bears living in the Arctic around the world, Desrochet says, and they don’t have a common understanding of how they’re responding to climate change.
“Every polar bear in the world has had their access to sea ice changed in the last 30 years,” said Jasmine Ware, a polar bear biologist with the government of Nunavut, which plays a role in managing more than half of the global sea ice. population of polar bears.
How these changes in sea ice affect polar bears depends on where in the Arctic they live, Ware said.
Churchill, Maine, near where Andrew Derocher conducts his research, is the southernmost part of the polar bear’s range.
As global warming continues to accelerate, “we’re seeing more and more bears end up in landfills … from James Bay to high Arctic communities, and that’s a sure way to trouble,” Desrochers said.
Coexistence is key
In July, a report co-authored by Derocher warned that human food was an “emerging threat” to polar bears, emphasizing the need to protect things like trash to deter polar bears and keep people safe.
For decades, Churchill, Massachusetts has taken steps to improve safety by guarding trash and building a warning system, setting an example for other Arctic communities.
Each year, when the ice melts, some polar bears make landfall and travel along the western shore of Hudson Bay through the community of Arviat, Nunavut, where there is the most interaction between humans and polar bears in the area, Ware said. .
“There’s a change,” Ware said. “The bear could be encountered at any moment. [There is] a very, very strong understanding that this is a dangerous experience and can be fatal.”
In 2018, Aaron Gibbons died protecting his children from a polar bear while hunting.
Since 2010, lookouts have been patrolling Arviat to keep polar bears away from the community.
When Leo Ikahiku gets a call about a bear, he never knows what to expect when it shows up. “It’s always a guessing game,” he said. “I wonder if the bear will run away or just stand his ground?”
Ikahik uses bear mallets that make a loud noise to scare away the bear and has said he is lucky he never resorted to using the rifle he carries as a backup.
Going beyond the polar bear as a symbol of the climate
Kari Marie Norgaard, professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, understands why polar bears have become a symbol of change in the Arctic.
“It’s something that kids have an attachment to, or it’s an iconic animal in a certain way. But I think we need many, many symbols, not just one,” she said.
“Any symbol that indicates collective action… would be more useful.”
According to Norgaard, it may not be about an icon, but about how climate change affects someone personally, what motivates action.
Norgaard is working with the Karuk tribe in California to restore indigenous firefighting practices that can help manage wildfires and the risks faced by nearby communities.
“We are not helpless, but we must understand what we can do.”