International Polar Bear Day is Coming Up this Saturday. How Does Solar Help Protect Vulnerable Species?
Alex "Solar Girl" Steele
This Saturday, we’ll be observing an international day of awareness for one of the most well-loved apex predators on Earth: the polar bear! Officially classified as Ursus maritimus, the polar bear is an iconic creature that rules the Arctic circle. It is the largest extant bear species on the planet! This powerful animal is considered the most carnivorous of all bear species, feeding primarily on ringed and bearded seals. Though their food source is abundant and they are strong, intelligent animals, polar bears are a vulnerable species due to the impact that climate change is having on their habitat. It is crucial that we strive to protect the polar bear population because they are a keystone species; one that plays a vital role in its natural environment despite relatively small numbers. They are also considered useful indicators for understanding the overall condition of the Arctic region, because observing the health and wellbeing of polar bear populations can help ecologists determine issues impacting the entire ecosystem there. Unfortunately, human activity is having an adverse effect on polar bear habitats, but there is a solution! Continued development of renewable energy can help protect fragile ecosystems such as the Arctic, so we wanted to talk about how solar does it’s part to ensure this magnificent species can be conserved.
It can be difficult for scientists to study polar bears in the field, due to the remote nature of their habitats. As of 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that the polar bear population was around 22,000 - 31,000. Current research projects that their population will decline by approximately 30% over the next 3 generations, due to "decline in area of occupancy, extent of occurrence and/or quality of habitat". Some of the most well respected research institutions, such as the IUCN, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, and the United States Geological Survey, have all expressed worry that anthropogenic climate change will seriously threaten the species.
The warming effect of increased greenhouse gas emissions is resulting in habitat loss for the polar bear, impacting their ability to hunt and shelter themselves. As global temperatures rise, Arctic sea ice is melting much more rapidly than it did in previous generations. Early melting of ice platforms means the bears have a much smaller area to hunt for seals, and sometimes they have to come inland to forage for alternate food sources to survive. This can cause bears to become sick or poisoned if they eat unsuitable substances, as well as result in dangerous interactions between bears and humans. The reduction of sea ice cover can also cause bears to drown because they have to swim longer distances instead of walking across ice, and with fewer food sources, exhaustion can set in quickly. Beyond the immediate risks of starvation, illness and drowning from habitat degradation, climate change and warming global temperatures have long term impacts on the health of polar bears from generation to generation. Without adequate food and ice cover, mother polar bears have a tough time building maternity dens, birthing healthy cubs, and keeping them alive. Those cubs who do survive may be stunted due to malnutrition. As you can see, the impacts of climate change have an exponential impact on the polar bear population, and harm to them has the potential to cause a trophic cascade of problems for the rest of the ecosystem.
By supporting the development of renewables such as solar, you can do your part to help protect this beautiful animal. Scientists at the U.S Geological Survey have projected that as much as ? of the current polar bear population could be wiped out by 2050 if mankind continues on the path of fossil fuel consumption that will result in moderate climate change. Their research suggests that the entire European, Asian, and Alaskan populations of bears will disappear, with severe declines in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland. Such a drastic drop in the global population of this animal will result in a domino effect of ecological impacts, so it is critically important that we plan to protect their homes and leave them to feed and breed in peace! Thankfully, supporting the development of clean energy can enable us to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels, which will help mitigate climate change and leave polar bears unbothered.
As more renewables are added to the grid, the demand for fossil fuels will continue to drop, which means there will be less incentive for oil exploration in the Arctic. This will prevent further disruption of polar bear habitats, reducing the risk of mother bears leaving their maternity dens too early or abandoning their litter out of fear, helping to support future generations of cubs. It will also reduce the risk of oil spills in the Arctic circle, which can kill polar bears by poisoning them or ruining the insulative qualities of their fur. Transitioning away from dirty fuel will also slow the self-reinforcing feedbacks that amplify and accelerate climate change. As greenhouse gasses increase in concentration in the atmosphere, the warming of the planet and melting of ice sheets will change the temperature and concentration of salt in the world’s oceans, impacting global ocean current circulation and causing extreme abnormalities in weather in high-latitude areas. Other feedback loops could occur on land, as warming that shrinks ice sheets will decrease their elevation, causing more rapid warming and melting at lower altitude. All of these changes will have catastrophic impacts on the ecosystems that call the Arctic region home - polar bears will be a highly visible reflection of the worsening conditions there, but they will not be the only ones affected.
Fostering the development of renewables will help us break away from the destructive path towards environmental degradation that we are on. It won’t solve all of our problems (keep in mind - no matter how much solar we install, that won’t reduce the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere!) but it is a critical step in the global effort to fight climate change. People all over the world will need to work together to protect vulnerable species and the ecosystems they call home, and one easy way you can do your part is by putting solar on your own property, or supporting the growth of the renewable energy industry. We have a long way to go in the fight to conserve our planet and all the species that live here, including ourselves! Even though the massive problem of global climate change seems insurmountable to one person, everyone who obtains or just supports solar energy is helping us take a step closer to making sure polar bears and all of their neighbors can enjoy living in the Arctic for generations to come! Protecting polar bears means protecting the rest of the animals and people on the planet as well - and we’re happy to be part of the fight for good.