Every February 27, International Polar Bear Day calls our attention to the world’s largest and perhaps most beloved bear species. It’s hard to find someone who isn’t fascinated by these amazing mammals — no one can forget Siku’s adorable antics — but how much do you truly know about polar bears and the current threats they face?

There are only about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears living in the Arctic, where their territory ranges through five countries, including Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States. In the United States, polar bears are listed as a threatened species, but all populations are being challenged by a shrinking habitat.

A single bear in evening light on the shores of the Hudson Bay outside Churchill, Manitoba.

A polar bear waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze stands on a small piece of sea ice in October. Taken outside of Churchill, Manitoba.

A mother and two cubs search for shelter from the wind and snow.

The strength of a polar bear is impressive. This lone bear is hauling himself out of the water onto a pan of sea ice.

A mother and cub walk in the warm glow of the arctic evening light.

A large polar bear ambles through the broken sea ice on the shore of the Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba.

A polar bear breaks through the sea ice while hunting seals.

“Climate warming is literally pulling the rug out from under polar bears’ feet — dramatically reducing the summer extent and year-round volume of sea ice habitat bears require to thrive,” says Geoff York, head of arctic species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund’s global Arctic program.

Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about polar bears that can make it difficult to get them help.

Misunderstandings and Threats

Polar bears are so commonly seen in advertisements and other aspects of our culture that many incorrect assumptions exist about the species. One example is how some people think polar bears live with penguins because they are so often seen together in the media; in fact, the two species live near different poles (polar bears live around the North Pole, and penguins live south of the equator).

Climate Change and the Loss of Sea Ice

The misunderstanding causing the most harm, however, is how much polar bears rely on sea ice to survive. Many people think polar bears can just adapt to living on land if sea ice disappears. To understand the importance of sea ice, York recommends that people think of it as an upside-down garden, with all the action taking place out of sight under the ice.

“Ice algae feed plankton that in turn are preyed on by cod who feed seals that provide the calories polar bears need to survive,” York says.

Seals are a great food source for polar bears in the extreme environment because they are mostly blubber, according to National Wildlife Federation naturalist David Mizejewski. Bears fatten up by eating seals, and then when the ice breaks up during the summer and they’re forced onto land, they don’t eat but live off their fat reserves. However, climate change is causing sea ice to break up earlier in the summer than it used to and take longer to form in the late fall and winter. This means bears have less time to hunt and don’t have enough body fat to perform life functions.

“Bears can’t catch seals on open water where seals have adapted and can get away. They need sea ice to catch seals, to hunt them when they come up in breathing holes for air or to smell out mother seals’ snow dens,” says Mizejewski.

In addition, Mizejewski says poorer conditions for bears have resulted, with a lack of food driving males to sometimes attack females and cubs, and females having a harder time getting pregnant. The cub mortality rate has also increased.

“A dangerous inaccuracy I hear people saying is that if climate change forces polar bears on land, they will adapt and learn to eat something else, but that’s not the case,” he says. “Bears don’t have any other options…there’s really nothing else for them to eat that they can survive on.”

Other Concerns

While a reduction in sea ice is the biggest threat to polar bears, others do exist. Because polar bears are being forced to spend more time on land, Polar Bears International (PBI) executive director Krista Wright says there is increased potential for more human-bear conflict. Chemical contaminants and other pollutants also threaten the species by affecting the polar bear’s food source, seals, and polar bears themselves.

Ways to Help

Wright hopes people will see International Polar Bear Day as a day of action, and make a difference by joining a part of PBI’s Save Our Sea Ice (SOS!) Campaign, the Thermostat Challenge. By adjusting your thermostat up or down a few degrees depending on where you live, you can lower your carbon emissions.

“Any time people work to reduce their emissions, they are ultimately helping polar bears,” she says. “Small changes like that collectively add up to make a bigger impact.”

Wright also encourages people to host or participate in an existing event for the day to help spread the word.

“Vote for leaders who understand the threats posed by climate change and who are willing to take the actions necessary for the long-term benefit of polar bears and the rest of us on this tightly connected planet we call home,” York says. This includes making sure politicians, such as those leaders who make commitments to the species at global events like December’s International Forum on Polar Bear Conservation in Moscow, actually act on their promises.

Donating to nonprofits and reaching out to government officials can also be effective ways to help save polar bears and let your voice be heard. Mizejewski says these are ways people can help fight bad energy projects and apply pressure for investment in a clean energy future. An immediate impact won’t be seen because the damage has taken hundreds of years to appear, but you can still make a difference. According to Mizejewski, the technology for a cleaner future exists, but it needs investment and the political will to push it forward.

“It’s either protect the habitat from climate change, if not by reversing the effects then by slowing the warming, or polar bears are going to go extinct, or at least certain populations will,” he says.

Learn more about polar bears and how you can help on these websites: Polar Bears International, World Wildlife Fund, and National Wildlife Federation.

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