Watching Extinction in Real Time

11/17/2011 8:11:56 PM

Watching Extinction in Real Time

What does extinction look like?

Sometimes it's a black and white picture, such as of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died alone in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. By then of course the pigeon was extinct in the wild, and the loss of a species literally was reduced to the loss of an individually-named animal.

A month ago, on a back-stage museum tour, I held the skin of a passenger pigeon and touched the pelt of the last grizzly killed in southern California. Gone for close to a century, these animals no longer exist in living memory, and can be experienced only in word, painting, photo or museum skin.

Brendan Cummings with passenger pigeon

Other times, extinction is less an artifact than a void, grudgingly acknowledged only after intensive, but ultimately futile searches, such as with scientists scouring the fractured forests of Vietnam for the last Javan rhino, or the savannahs of Cameroon for the Western black rhino. Both subspecies were declared extinct within the last month.

Here on Hudson Bay, extinction is something else entirely. Polar bears are of course not yet extinct. But waiting for overdue ice on an unseasonably warm afternoon in Churchill, it can feel like the future is now, and the fate predicted for polar bears by mid-century may arrive much, much sooner.

It's mid-November and the Bay is still open water. A decade or so ago, Hudson Bay would be in the early stages of freeze-up and the bears would be queuing up for another season on the ice. But last year the ice didn't come until the first week of December. This year, unless the weather gets much colder very soon, the bears could be waiting just as long, possibly even longer.

Hudson Bay with open water

And late freeze-up is not the only problem facing the polar bears of Hudson Bay. Break-up of ice in the Spring is as much as three weeks earlier than it used to be. With less time on the ice to hunt, polar bears are coming to shore thinner than they should be.

Skinny polar bear

For some bears the ice-free season is already too long. Last November a cub was filmed literally starving to death, its mother too depleted to nurse it. This year, already one bear has died here from likely starvation, while thin bears are all too common a sight. As such trends continue, eventually the ice-free season will simply be too long for polar bears to survive, and the Western Hudson Bay population will join the California grizzly on that sad list of animals that no longer exist everywhere they should be.

But even if it may already be too late to save the polar bears of Western Hudson Bay, it is certainly not too late to save polar bears in most of the rest of their range. With rapid greenhouse gas reductions we can slow, and ultimately reverse, the melting of the ice. We just cannot wait any longer to do so.

The climate crisis, which threatens to steal the future of not just polar bears, but much of the world's biodiversity, can feel like watching a slow-motion train wreck, plainly visible for any who care to see, but still seemingly unstoppable. But it is not unstoppable. And while the political and economic resistance to a fossil-fuel free future is immense, we already have the technology and laws in place to make that transition. We just lack the will. Seeing the polar bears here, in their beauty and majesty, and sometimes tragedy, reinforces my commitment to do something, to do everything to turn this around.

Standing bear

Photos by Brendan Cummings.

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