Polar bear footprints point to the Last Ice Area

By Clive Tesar

Originally posted on WWF Canada’s blog featuring the Arctic.

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  Polar bear footprints on sea-ice north of Baffin Island. © Clive Tesar/WWF

Polar bear footprints on sea-ice north of Baffin Island. © Clive Tesar/WWF

Six years ago, in a room in WWF’s Washington office, everybody in WWF who knew anything about polar bears was gathered. I was there too, not because I knew much about polar bears, but because somebody thought I should. The focus of the meeting was about the future of polar bears, given the big reductions in Arctic summer sea ice we were starting to see.

Everybody agreed that the rest of the conservation measures being taken by countries and Indigenous peoples were showing promise. Using a mixture of scientific information and traditional knowledge, we were getting a much better handle on the status of bear populations, and using that same mix, management of hunting was also improving to ensure it was sustainable. The one big problem remaining was that the sea ice, the polar bears’ primary habitat, was melting away.

At that point, we did not know for sure what to do about the melting ice, apart from campaigning to slow down and ultimately halt the climate change causing the ice melt. Then, as we looked at maps of the projections of where sea ice would be in the coming decades, we saw a pattern. It showed that as summer sea ice melted away in the rest of the Arctic, a patch of ice still clung to Canada’s high Arctic islands and Northwest Greenland. That was the day the Last Ice Area project was born, out of a conviction that the animals that relied on sea ice would still need sea ice in the future, and the people who relied on those animals would also need that sea ice. So we started to think about how we could work to conserve that habitat, so that animals could still use it, and people could still use those animals.

 Polar bear walking on ice. © Steve Morello / WWF

Polar bear walking on ice. © Steve Morello / WWF

Six years later, we understand a lot more than we did at the start. We talked to Inuit representatives to get an idea of what they wanted to know about the project. We talked to scientists to get an idea of the knowledge gaps that they saw, and we’ve been working to fulfill the interests the Inuit expressed to us, and to fill in the gaps the scientists saw. First we commissioned some more detailed ice modelling to be certain we had the best information about where the future ice would likely be. Then we commissioned a lot of other research about polar bears, a traditional knowledge study of the area, and research on other animals found around the ice.

Recently, some studies we commissioned, and studies we did not commission have been pointing to the strength of our original idea. The first one maps polar bear’s use of ice habitat onto our earlier projections of sea ice. This shows that the bears will indeed likely concentrate more and more on the shrinking area of summer sea ice found in the last ice area. A second recent study showed even more surprising information. A genetic analysis demonstrated that polar bear populations are already drifting toward the Last Ice Area.

We still have a lot of work to do to prove to everyone’s satisfaction that the Last Ice Area needs special conservation measures. Unfortunately, the ultimate level of proof will not occur until the changes being projected are actually upon us, and by then it may be too late to take the conservation measures required. WWF and others will not stop trying to prove the worth of conserving the Last Ice Area, but we must also start acting on the evidence to date, and follow the polar bears’ footprints pointing the way we must go.