Polar bears could be completely gone by the year 2100. 

They are the symbol of the Arctic—but they have also become the symbol of climate change. According to researchers like Dr. Peter Molnar of the University of Toronto Scarborough, polar bears are facing extinction as their hunting grounds melt away.

Sunday, February 27, is International Polar Bear Day, celebrating the largest members of the bear family and the largest land carnivores in the world. Is there any way that we could delay or even reverse the impending loss of this most iconic of Arctic denizens? Data sharing may provide biologists and policy makers with the knowledge and tools to preserve these fierce, noble animals. 

Climate change and sea ice

The most common cause of extinction is loss of habitat. In the case of polar bears, that habitat is sea ice. This is where they hunt seals, their primary prey. Sea ice is degrading because of the rise in global temperatures due to human-caused climate change. Year-round sea ice is declining by 13% per decade since satellite records began in the late 1970s, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

“The rise in temperatures affects the spring break-up timing and the autumn freeze-up,” said Dr. Andrew Derocher, Professor of Biology at the University of Alberta and author of Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior. “There’s still lots of ice in mid-winter but it’s the start and end of the season that matters because that affects how long the ice-free season is, and the fasting duration of the bears is limited. The warming also changes other parts of the ice dynamics, and in many areas it moves more, and this can cost the bears energy due to ice drift as they often walk against the flow of ice.”  

Additional effects of declining sea ice are fewer females carrying cubs to the normal weaning age of 2.5 years, and an increasing absence of mothers with yearlings. 

“This may be because females are running out of energy, stop lactating, and the cubs die if she can’t get seals soon enough, as the cubs have minimal fat stores of their own to fall back on,” said Derocher. 

Polar bears, like all elements of the ecosystem, are both agents and objects of influence. 

“Arctic sea ice supports the entire Arctic food chain, from the bottom algae to the apex predators, polar bears,” according to Polar Bear International. “Sea ice is to the Arctic ecosystem as soil is to the forest. When ocean water gets cold enough to freeze, it expels salt, causing channels to form inside the ice. As sunlight filters through, algae grow within these channels, creating an underwater garden that forms the base of the food chain. Climate change is shortening the sea ice season in several regions around the Arctic.”

Just as sea ice change compromises polar bears, it threatens everything else in the Arctic ecosystem.

Data is knowledge, knowledge is power

There are 19 communities of polar bears in the world. None of them are easy to reach from major population areas and some are extremely remote.  

“I always try to make the point that with 19 populations, there are 19 different scenarios playing out,” said Derocher. “They are all affected by sea ice loss differently.” There are, in other words, 19 different data sets and each data set is a combination of a host of other data sets. It’s data all the way down. 

Abundance data, according to Todd Atwood, a research wildlife biologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), is the “gold standard” for assessing population status. What is the representation of an animal in an ecosystem and how does it track over time?

“It’s very hard to collect this data because of the logistical difficulties of working in the Arctic,” said Atwood. “As a result, 8 of the 19 polar bear subpopulations lack abundance data.” 

Abundance data may be the gold standard, but it’s only one of a number of data points biologists and policymakers need in order to understand what is happening with climate change, the Arctic, and polar bears. 

“Sea ice data—availability, extent, timing of sea ice break-up and freeze-up—is also very important because it provides an index, or indirect measure, of habitat quality and access to prey,” said Atwood. “Location data collected from satellite tags and collars is important because it provides data on how bears are responding to changes in the availability of sea ice habitat in real time. This information is useful in predicting how the distribution of bears will change in the long term and helps identify areas where habitat needs to be protected because of its current and future value to bears.”

Additional data currently being gathered includes what kind of threats polar bears are feeling from increasing industrial development of the Arctic, and to what extent polar bears are resilient to climate change (e.g., what is their capacity to modify their behavior and physiology as their environment changes?) 

Biologists like Atwood and Derocher are trying to understand how threats and resiliency interact to synergistically influence bear population dynamics.

One type of data that biologists and their allies need to start gathering, according to Atwood, is data on polar bear prey, primarily ringed seals—specifically how they are responding to a warming Arctic. How is seal abundance changing and how have seals’ food sources been affected? 

Neither biologists nor policy makers are currently equipped to understand the polar bears’ situation enough to recommend policy changes that might save them. The technology that makes sharing data easier is key. Tech that makes data more accessible and richer, such as machine learning, could help scientists to accomplish things like identifying polar bear locations and abundance by learning from massive amounts of photography and satellite imagery. 

“There’s no ‘one-size fits all’ for polar bears,” said Derocher. So gathering, processing, and sharing data is integral to any positive outcome in the Arctic. 

What can you do? 

Don’t wait quietly for the future to arrive. Look to the future and try to understand it. That way, you may be able to influence it. You cannot single-handedly stop the slide toward extinction, but you can understand and lend a hand, both individually and in groups. 

Here are some suggestions as to how you can help, provided by Polar Bears International. 

  1. Use the Polar Bear Day toolkit to educate yourself and take part. 
  2. Donate to protect bear moms and their cubs. This campaign funds the development of a new tool to find and then protect dens hidden under the snow. By protecting dens, you’ll protect cubs, helping to ensure their future. 
  3. Take the “Protect Moms and Cubs Challenge.” Want to snowball your commitment to moms and cubs? Start a “Protect Moms and Cubs Challenge” fundraiser and invite your friends, family, and colleagues to join you. PBI will reward the top 3 fundraisers with prizes!
  4. Adopt a Polar Bear: Choose either a stuffed animal or virtual adoption.
  5. Join the community. Sign up here to receive exclusive Arctic news to share with your community. 
  6. Spread the word with this International Polar Bear Day Toolkit. Socialize it with #PolarBearDay #ProtectMomsAndCubs #TalkAboutIt #WeSupportPolarBears
  7. You can talk about climate change and why it matters to you with your friends, family, and colleagues. By making climate change part of everyday conversations, you’ll help make it a kitchen table issue and a policy priority.
  8. You can get involved with community projects that will help make a difference on a scale beyond your own household (because individual actions alone won’t get us where we need to be). This might mean advocating for electric buses, working with schools on no-idle zones, or supporting local bike lanes, farmers’ markets, and renewable-energy initiatives. 
  9. You can vote with the climate in mind, in each and every election, at every level of government—because we need policy changes to create sustainable systems. You can also regularly contact your representatives in support of climate action. And you can encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to join you in getting involved.
  10. You can follow a conservation ethic in your own life, whether it’s switching to a clean energy source (most utility companies offer this option), supporting companies that are taking meaningful steps to lower their emissions, or helping to bring about a shift to sustainable food systems by shopping at your local farmers’ market—and then talk about these choices with others, helping to make a climate-friendly lifestyle a social norm. 

Snowflake is devoted to understanding and helping polar bears, especially in terms of data. If you have a Snowflake account, you can access these data sets with particular relevance to conservation. 

  1. Knoema: OECD Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  2. Knoema: Monthly Climatic Data for the World
  3. Knoema: Environment Data Atlas