Saturday, May 23, 2009

CONSERVATION: Where Have All the Polar Bears Gone?

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill (Wapusk National ...Image via Wikipedia

Where Have All the Polar Bears Gone? by Cheryl Hanna

Scientists estimate that 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears live in areas in the Northern Hemisphere that are covered by sea ice. Evolving from brown bears, polar bears are the largest of the bear family with males commonly 8 to 9 feet in height and weighing 1320 pounds while the females grow to 6 to 7 feet weighing in at half the amount of their male counterparts.

Their pale coloration acts as a camouflage, their outer coats are water repellent and their black skin absorbs warmth while the suction cups on their huge paws help to navigate and steady them on the slippery ice. Their carnivorous teeth equip them to rip at the hides of seals, beluga whales and walrus.

Over the past century the temperatures have increased an average of one degree Fahrenheit and scientists conclude that the Arctic has warmed 10 times more. In Alaska the temperatures have risen four to seven degrees Fahrenheit within the past half century, home of two-thirds of the world's polar bears possibly causing the disappearance of them by 2050 as well as the fate of other animals and humans alike.

Five years ago when the polar ice caps had retreated 160 miles, ten polar bears had been observed swimming 60 miles off shore during a violent storm, but after just a few days, when the scientists returned, four of the bears had drowned. A change in their habits, because of the thinning of sea ice which could shrink to half or disappear completely by the end of the century many have determined the fate of those 4 polar bears.

Bears need sea ice to hunt for seals. Seals periodically pop up through breathing holes in the ice. From 1979 to 1981, 87% of the bears were found on ice slabs, but from 1992 to 2004, only 33% were on the ice. During the summer, as the ice melts off, the bears must come ashore and face food shortages before they have had enough time to store enough fat to last until the next winter season.

Often they are seen eating dead carcasses. Luckily for the bears, enzymes in their livers let them digest even rotting meat making it unlikely that a polar bear can be poisoned. As ringed seals become more scarce and their offspring numbers greatly reduced, the bears have little choice but to come on land more frequently and hunt caribou. As bears have less food to eat, and they lose weight, female polar bears now weighing as much as 55 pounds less than they did 30 years ago, are also less likely to reproduce.

Skeptics have criticized environmentalists who insist stricter curbs on greenhouse gas emissions most likely are linked to this global warming. Curbs on carbon emissions will have to be monitored more closely, however on May 8, 2009, Internal Secretary Ken Salazar decided to retain a Bush regulation limited the protection of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.

Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska and previous vice presidential candidate lauded Salazar's decision not to further protect the polar bears, however Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works criticized the decision.

There are nearly 7 billion people on this planet; climate changes and global warming affects each and every species. If we aren't proactive, there won't be any polar bears left, but that is only a hint of what's to come. The degrading environmental habits of all mankind needs to be addressed so that future generations can marvel at Mother Nature's most expressive art.

Cheryl Hanna is a freelance writer living in South Florida. A passionate horse owner and advocate, Cheryl primarily writes about animals, fashion, and current events. For more information, email or visit

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