With sea ice formation a full month behind schedule, Western Hudson Bay's polar bears will need every stored calorie to extend their fast.

© Downs Matthews/Polar Bears International

1/9/2017 3:39:02 AM

Living in the Time of Consequences

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation

That 2016 was an unusual year will be lost on no one. From U.S. politics to regional weather and global climate metrics like sea ice, the word historic comes to mind again and again. Having just returned from Hudson Bay, I feel like I witnessed something more than simply historic: I fear I saw a new normal unfold before my eyes.

Arctic sea ice extent tied for the second lowest in mid-September. This was worrisome, but as winter returned to the Far North, the sea ice started to grow, as was normal. That all came to a screeching halt in October, as temperatures across the Arctic soared—reaching highs up to 36° C above historic averages.

Sea ice growth flat-lined in most regions and actually decreased in the Barents Sea. Temperatures in parts of Hudson Bay were 10°-20° C warmer than they should have been, and the rim of shore-fast ice that had started to form disappeared.

When I departed from Churchill, the well-known polar bear gathering place, on November 30, sea ice maps showed the majority of the Bay was still ice-free—with only open ocean stretching to the North. Polar bears in this region had fortunately had a good summer, with many getting off the sea ice a bit later than normal. With sea ice formation a full month behind schedule, they will need every stored calorie as thinner bears struggle to extend their fast. Thinner males became notably more aggressive towards one another and towards people, and began showing interest in alternative foods—including young cubs.

I have witnessed dramatic changes in the Arctic over the last 25 years, and this does not feel like a one-off event. Instead, I fear this is the beginning of a phase change, a shift—a consequence of both our actions and inactions to date.

As I read news story after story about the Arctic’s high temperatures and stalled sea ice, and how this all fits into the broader picture of a warming world, I am struck by the fact that humans are as ice-dependent as polar bears. Regardless of where we live or what we do, we owe the moderate climates that have fostered our success as a species to the presence of massive sea and land ice at both poles. That icy safety valve is now coming apart and we are truly living in a time of consequences.

The consequences for polar bears in many areas will be spending more time onshore without adequate food sources. In regions where sea ice withdraws the longest, we will see accelerated population declines as nutritional thresholds push the young and the old beyond their ability to endure. In many places we are likely to see more bears interacting with people, communities, and workers at remote camps—often to the detriment of both.

Fortunately, reducing conflict is something PBI can tackle. Through increased research on deterrence, improved education on bear safety, and increased distribution of modern, less-lethal tools like bear spray, we can arm people with the knowledge and resources they need to keep communities and polar bears safe.

PBI can also help by working to mitigate or prevent the most damaging outcomes for polar bears and prepare for what we cannot fix, through our research, outreach, and participation in front-line planning. As changes in the Arctic continue, information about our natural world, about the Arctic, and about its top predator the polar bear are critical. Now, more than ever, as we enter what some would call a post-factual world, we must broaden our coalitions, strengthen our partnerships, and boldly proclaim: facts matter, information matters, sources matter, education matters, honesty matters, and every action based on these elements matters. We are living in a time of consequences, but the future is still unwritten—let us all choose wisely.

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