As cold winds left summer-lovers across South Africa grumbling in the past few days about climate change, Polar Bear Week is here to remind us we’re not the only ones affected by global warming.
Started five years ago by explore.org, Polar Bears International (PBI) and Frontiers North Adventures, Polar Bear Week comes at the height of the bears’ annual migration along the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada.
The organisations have set up live-streaming cameras so that people all over the world can watch the bears as they migrate.
“Polar bears provide us with an early warning of the global warming’s risks,” explained Steven Amstrup, a scientist at PBI.
His colleague Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, added: “Climate change is also exacerbating other issues across Africa and around the world: access to clean water, the risk of infectious disease, even the stability of nations such as Syria that teeter on the edge.”
According to PBI, global warming delays the formation of sea ice that the bears walk on to hunt seals.
When there is no sea ice, the bears live off the extra fat their bodies have stored. The delays in ice formation mean bears migrate into the bay later in the year and out of the bay earlier, so they live off their fat reserves longer.
Polar bears hunt seals because their fat has a high calorie content, according to PBI, which the bears need in the frigid Arctic temperatures. Explore.org said polar bears can eat up to 45kg of blubber in one meal lasting 20 minutes.
Amstrup said the population of polar bears in the Hudson Bay area has dropped 22 percent in the last 30 years.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has classified the polar bear as a vulnerable species. According to PBI, scientists estimate between 20 000 and 25 000 polar bears are left in the world.
The last polar bear in all of Africa, Wang, died last year at the Johannesburg Zoo. Spokeswoman Jenny Moodley said the zoo does not plan to replace the bear. The zoo wants to upgrade the polar bear enclosure for a penguin exhibit but is waiting for funding.
Amstrup said if we act soon, there is still time to reduce our greenhouse emissions enough to save the polar bears still living in the wild. PBI has called for initiatives similar to Joburg’s Ecomobility Month.
The UN will hold a conference on climate change at the end of this month. PBI has a petition available to sign online to encourage the UN conference to consider the plight of the polar bears.