December 08, 2015

By Jeffrey P. Bonner, Ph.D.
Dana Brown President and CEO

Climate change is in the news yet again with 150 world leaders meeting in Paris until December 11. They are trying to hammer out an agreement on carbon reductions to counter climate change. 

Most everyone agrees the problem is real. As of this October, Earth had warmed by about 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, when tracking began on a global scale. The warming is greater over land and greater still in the Arctic and parts of Antarctica. 

The number may sound low, but as an average over the surface of an entire planet, it is actually high—which explains why much of the land ice on the planet is starting to melt and the oceans are rising at an accelerating pace. 

I just returned from Churchill, Manitoba, where every year we find the largest aggregation of polar bears in the world. They come to Churchill because even though the area is actually below the Arctic Circle, sea ice forms here before it forms anywhere else in Hudson Bay. Ice forms earliest here for three reasons:

  • The current in the Bay goes counter clockwise, meaning that cold water streams down from the pole;
  • Churchill is on a peninsula that sticks out well into the Bay, so the cold water runs hard into the land; and
  • A river flows into the Bay at Churchill, making the water brackish (and salt water mixed with fresh water freezes faster than pure salt water). 

For years, the sea ice at Churchill has been forming later and breaking up earlier in the year. This means that polar bears spend less and less time out on the ice, where virtually all of their real nutrition comes from. This is a direct result of a warming climate.

Furthermore, the total area of sea ice around the north pole is getting progressively smaller, as shown here:

This is even more alarming evidence of climate change.

And as an animal guy, another recent event caught my eye. The documentary “Racing Extinction” premiered Wednesday, December 2. It aired in more than 220 countries and territories worldwide. Shot over six years and culled from more than 2,000 hours of footage, the documentary charts the drivers of extinction. As thousands of land mammals and sea creatures have died out, smaller species, such as plankton and bees, also are headed for extinction. 

The filmmaker Louie Psihoyos who produced “Racing Extinction” has said, "Humankind is part of a web of life, not a pyramid with man on top. When you start losing the small things, breaking apart this web that took 4.6 billion years to evolve, everything else begins to fail."

You might think that the web of life is unraveling most quickly in far off lands. But the United States ranks #2 in the world in endangered species—behind only Ecuador. In this country, we have lost numerous species of wolves; bats; pollinators like butterflies, birds and bees; panthers; and a range of amphibians and reptiles—frogs, salamanders and river turtles.

Hawaii may be the poster child for this: that state is noted for having less than .2 percent of U.S. land area but more than 25 percent of all federally endangered species. Most are plants and birds threatened by invasive species and habitat loss—losses, which, by the way, have nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with human behavior.

So as we watch the documentaries and observe the proceedings in Paris, we all need to remember we do not need to wait for some message from above to start saving our ecosystem and ourselves. We can fly and drive less, live in smaller homes, waste less food, eat less meat, take public transit and create habitats for native species by fighting for land for nature preserves. We can champion legislation to encourage energy conservation and push for measures that protect ecosystems.

We can help with population censuses by becoming citizen scientists. We can report data on the calls of local frogs and toads through FrogWatch USA. Over the holidays between December 14 and January 5, we can join the Christmas Bird Count when thousands of volunteers from around the world count the number of bird species and the individual numbers of each species they see—all to provide scientists with a profile of bird population numbers and avian movements.

Or if we don’t want to brave frigid weather, we can plant milkweed for monarch butterflies and get out and enjoy natural environments with our families. We should take our children and grandchildren outside—we cannot underestimate the impact of instilling a love for nature in the next generation. They are the ones who must carry on the fight to save our planet and all of its creatures.

Photo of Hudson Bay in November 2015: Geoff S York/Polar Bears International
Photo of girl with butterfly: Robin Winkelman/Saint Louis Zoo