We Can Do This!

11/20/2011 10:43:35 PM

We Can Do This!

This visit to Churchill was one of extremes. When we arrived on November 11, the temperature was barely above freezing, with very little snow on the ground, virtually no ice on Hudson Bay and even inland lakes still unfrozen. Yet less than a week later, the temperature had fallen to -17° C and the wind was howling—by far the strongest storm I've ever experienced here, though I suppose quite mild by the standards in this part of the world.

On our first day we saw the skinniest bear I have ever seen personally (as opposed to in photos taken by others), among a number of bears grazing on old grain (a behavior apparently never seen before), its backbone and even some of its ribs outlined in ghastly contrast to optimal polar bear body condition. Many of the bears in the area were quite thin. Seeing them gathered at the grain piles, much closer to town than the protected bear viewing areas, filled me with a strong sense of unease.

Yet several days later, out on the tundra, the bears once again worked their magic on me, so that when two large males approached quite close I was so mesmerized that I forgot about my camera and I even forgot about global warming. Instead I just lost myself in the sound of their footsteps, the rhythm of their breathing and the wonder of their massive bodies, so magnificently adapted for life in the frigid North. Several males were play-fighting, wrestling and rolling on the ground, looking fierce and majestic one moment and teddy-bear cute the next. It's hard to describe just how wonderful they are.

Yet after several days of full polar bear immersion, and after the webcasting, the media interviews, the blogging, the evening presentations and the socializing with the adventurous, accomplished, and cosmopolitan guests on the Tundra Buggy® Lodge, when it was time to depart, I felt a sharper grief than I ever have before. I felt that somehow I had not fully and properly appreciated the bears during my precious days out on Tundra Buggy One, and that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was slipping away, in some way squandered. The feeling, I think, is a manifestation of the tragic fact that this population is in decline, that individual bears are starving, and that it is in all likelihood already too late to save polar bears in the southern portion of their range.

I say that because of the "climate commitment," which refers to the fact that because it takes many years for the full warming impact of carbon dioxide emitted today to be realized, we're already committed to an approximate doubling of the warming we've already experienced. As Dr. John Bruno put it, during an outstanding evening presentation on the Lodge, we're currently experiencing the warming from greenhouse gases emitted during the Nixon administration. There is far more warming still to come.

Yet traveling homeward after a long night's sleep as the cold northern wind howled outside, I awoke with renewed energy and determination and gratitude to be alive and be privileged to devote all of my energy to trying to turn things around. There is every reason for sadness and grief, but we cannot let it immobilize us. There are solutions to this problem, and there are ways to avoid further suffering for polar bears, for so many other animals, and of course for humanity as well. Three hundred thousand people per year already die because of global warming. Entire Pacific Island Nations are already planning for evacuation because their homelands are becoming uninhabitable. The solutions sometimes feel as though they are hidden in plain view, but they are there, and we can do this.

I send my heartfelt thanks to Polar Bears International, Frontiers North's Tundra Buggy Adventures, Canada Goose, and explore.org for making my time with the bears possible, and to all the readers for all of your efforts. Together we will find a way to give polar bears back their future.

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