How the Polar Bear Became the Poster Child of Climate Change

Sep 15, 2016

Andrew Derocher traveled to Norway in 1996 to study what he thought would be a large, untouched population of polar bears. The country had flat-out banned the commercial hunting of bears as part of the Oslo Agreement 23 years earlier. Derocher, a professor at the University of Alberta and a polar bear biologist, assumed that was enough time for the bears' population and health to rebound. What he found surprised him.

"It turned out that in the Norwegian arctic we had one of the most polluted populations in the world, and the levels really were quite shocking, at the level where you would expect to see effects on survival and perhaps reproduction. So a lot of my research changed quite quickly."

In the seven years he spent working in Norway, another element of polar bears' survival was rapidly diminishing: their habitat.

"One of the study areas that I worked in in Norway, it was no longer even polar bear habitat; the ice had melted that quickly. Over that seven year period, the ice had changed that dramatically. One of the islands where we were based, which used to have upwards of 30-40 female polar bears having cubs there, that area was no longer even possible for the females to reach."

Polar bear research entered its modern era in the 1960s. Then, the biggest perceived threat to polar bear populations was hunting, and countries and scientists alike wanted to know exactly how many polar bears they could harvest while keeping the population at a healthy level.

"In 1973, in response to concerns internationally that polar bears were being overhunted, and perhaps on their way to extinction from hunting, there was an international agreement under the five arctic nations that had polar bears under their jurisdiction. And in that agreement, it said that you must conduct research. So that's why the United States and Canada and Norway, Russia and Greenland have ongoing research programs."

That extensive research meant that, when climate change began to be better understood, the research on polar bears’ habitat, environment, and survival was already in place. That thorough understanding, paired with polar bears’ natural cuteness, made them a natural choice for an icon in the fight against global warming.

"It was kind of a coincidence. None of the polar bear scientists that I know--and I know pretty much every one of them, there's not that many of us across the globe--set out to make polar bears this iconic image of climate change. [...] We were perfectly set up to see what the consequences of climate change were."

Still, refrains like ‘Save the Polar Bear’ don’t ring quite true for Derocher as a battle cry against climate change.

"By the time that we're really concerned about polar bears and their populations disappearing, which is some decades ahead, I think we're going to be much more concerned about humanitarian issues, about displaced people from sealevel rise about drought and food and access to water. So the perspective we're going to be trying to save polar bears? Maybe, but I think there's going to be more pressing [concerns]."

In this Talk of Iowa interview, host Charity Nebbe talks with Derocher about polar bears and his new study on their ability (or lack thereof) to survive on land.