Roaming the ice at the top of the world, the polar bear has captured the human imagination ever since the first paleo-Eskimos wandered into his frozen territory 4,000 years ago. To the Inuit, Inupiat, Yu’pik, Cree, Chukchi, Evenki, and other people of the far north, the great white bear is regarded as kin, teacher and master of the animals. The Inuit claim they learned how to hunt seals and build igloos from Nanuq; Cree legend tells of how Wapusk taught them survival skills; and the Chukchi people regard Umqy as a symbol of strength and power.
Even to those of us “south of 60,” the polar bear is mythic in his proportions. He is the largest land carnivore on Earth, often growing over 11 feet high and weighing more than 1,500 pounds. Covered from head to claw in fog-colored fur, Ursus maritimus was named “Lord of the Arctic” and “King of the Ice” by early Western explorers. Soon after the first explorers encountered the great white bear, he became the most salient symbol of the Arctic in the Western mind.
But now the Arctic ice is melting. And the polar bear—along with all the other inhabitants of the far north—faces an uncertain future. In May 2008, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Sadly, if sea ice habitat continues to melt, the Earth may lose one of her most majestic and charismatic animals by the end of this century.
Images of polar bears swimming great distances to find food or habitat have become poignant—but also contentious—emblems of climate change. In the scientific community, there is a very strong consensus about climate change and its impact on polar bears and the Arctic, as well as on the rest of the planet. There is no less of a consensus about the role that human activity plays. In fact, in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the Nobel prize-winning United Nations panel of experts—reported that it is at least 90 percent certain that human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are the main cause of global environmental change. And forthcoming IPCC reports are rumored to suggest a certainty closer to 95 percent. Despite the scientific community’s near-complete certainty about the human causes of climate change, some politicians and media outlets tend to present only a part of the picture in order to argue on behalf of commercial interests. Oil lobbyists deny climate change and its threat to polar bears, and complain that starving polar bears are nothing more than fund-raising tools for environmentalists.
As the ice melts, there have been variations in the Arctic’s 19 different polar bear subpopulations. Not all have responded to climate change in exactly the same way, or at the same rate. This is because their habitats differ, with variations in sea ice coverage, melting rates and food availability. But IPCC scientists believe that without significant global changes in human behavior, polar bears, and many other animal and plant species, will likely disappear from the wild much sooner than first predicted.
As we come to the end of 2013, the polar bear still stands at the edge of an ever-shrinking ice cap. For more than half a million years, the great white bear was "King of the Ice." Now, his world is vanishing, and our world is changing, too, much faster than anyone predicted. As we begin a new year, let us all do what we can to reduce our carbon footprints, for Nanuq, the rest of the planet, and ourselves.