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Endangered Species: The polar bear

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By Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter
Wednesday, August 7, 2013, 6:04 PM

Endangered Species is a new series at theweathernetwork.com. We're taking an in-depth look at our changing planet and how it is affecting plants, mammals, reptiles and insects. Today, we're looking at the polar bear, a vulnerable species with Canadian roots.

Approximately 16,000 of the world's 25,000 polar bears live on Canadian soil, and it's up to us to protect them.

So far, Canadians and Americans alike have demonstrated a willingness to support the cause. 

A 2011 report commissioned by Environment Canada suggests that Canadians are willing to pay $6.3 billion a year -- roughly $508 per household -- to ensure their safety. Earlier this year, a partnership between the WWF and Coca-Cola aiming to preserve the Arctic circle brought in more than $2 million in donations.

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

But are these efforts enough?

Prior to the early 1970s, polar bears were at odds with man. Three hundred years of hunting decimated the population, but an international ban has allowed numbers to rebound. While hunting is no longer an issue, studies show that the polar bear's habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate.

Last summer, the European Space Agency concluded that Arctic ice is thinning 50% faster than originally predicted. ESA's data, which compared NASA and submarine records, found that 900 cubic kilometres of summer ice vanished from the Arctic ocean between 2011 and 2012. If the analysis is correct, scientists warn that the entire region could eventually be ice-free in the summer.

"Exploitation of minerals and fossil fuels in the Arctic pose a continuous threat [to polar bears]," a rep from the Toronto Zoo says.

"Of the oil and natural gas deposits globally, 20% are located in the Arctic. As the ice cap recedes these become more accessible. Countries are competing which each other in claiming ownership of Arctic and its resources. This can only result in further and more drastic impact on polar bear habitat."

If the planet continues to warm at its current pace, the IUCN estimates that more than 50% of the current polar bear population could disappear in 45 years. And while this paints a bleak picture, climate change is only part of the problem. A study by researchers at Aarhus University suggests that toxic compounds used in a slew of commercial and industrial products have been found in the brain tissue of polar bears.

But it isn't all doom and gloom.

Some experts argue that polar bears have adapted to climate change in the past and that some polar bear populations appear to be unaffected by warming temperatures.

In the meantime, authorities are taking steps to protect this vulnerable species.

A Polar Bear Technical Committee works to identify some of the most threatened populations and limit commercial activities in those areas.

Protected habitats in national parks and marine wildlife areas have also been established.

File photo courtesy: Flickr

File photo courtesy: Flickr

Polar bears are accomplished swimmers, reaching a top speed of 9 kph in the water.

Their fur is built for life in the Arctic. A reflective coat traps heat, keeping the bear warm. Their fur is also water-repellent, enabling them to dry quickly after swimming in frigid waters.

In the wild, polar bears have demonstrated some decidedly human traits. Experts have observed frustrated bears throwing chunks of ice, kicking piles of snow or growling in disappointment after losing a battle with prey. Mothers will discipline their cubs -- albeit in a harsher fashion than some human parents -- with a swift whack to the head. 

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP 

  • Reduce your carbon footprint. Polar Bears International has started a No Idling Campaign with a bevy of useful information. 
  • Live minimally. Buy only what you need and try to avoid products with excessive packaging. 
  • Make smart choices at the supermarket. Try to go meatless at least once a week, buy locally grown produce and don't waste food.
  • Adopt a polar bear through WWF Canada.



Next week, we'll be turning to WWF Canada to learn more about the North Atlantic right whale, another incredible species with Canadian roots.

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