We have all seen the mournful image of an unhappy polar bear isolated on a melting ice floe. It conveys the doom of that one bear as well as his species, and implies that we are all headed in that direction if something is not done about global warming. Inspired by such images and his commitment to ecological conservation, this week’s guest on Sea Change Radio, Zac Unger, ventured up to the great white north to check out the plight of polar bears himself, up close. What he found surprised him. Embedding himself with scientists, Unger learned about how the bears are adjusting their diet, fasting periods and even breeding behavior in response to the warmer, longer summers that climate change is bringing. These adaptations, in conjunction with hunting prohibitions instituted late in the 20th century, have allowed the polar bear population to flourish.
The picture that Unger paints of this robust, adaptable species stands in stark contrast to the impression most of us have of the endangered polar bear. While some climate change deniers are exploiting Unger’s work to make their case, it’s important to keep in mind that his book, Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye, also demonstrates that global warming is indeed happening, and that the only route to survival, for any of us, is adaptation. Unger’s journey and discoveries also raise questions about the eventual impact that the bear’s adaptations will have on polar ecosystems, and critically consider the changing role of scientists as advocates.