As an offshoot of my reading Amy Irvine and Edward Abbey this month, I've been ruminating on the pros and cons of our human reach. Irvine points out, in Desert Cabal, that Abbey was all for protecting his beloved Arches NP. But his expectation was that protection would keep out "them" and still allow "him." Later, she recounts her experience talking with well meaning environmentalists who didn't see the irony in how they have flown, then driven, to somewhere "wild" only to inject climbing pegs over paleo-rock drawings and leave behind camping trash. My readings on fiber manufacture added to the irony since I've learned that, all the while, those of us wearing the latest neon-dyed activewear never consider the toxic dye process and the airline miles those threads devoured as they went from US plants to Asian processing to European spinning and weaving back to Asia for production and then back to our well-meaning green friends for consumption.
I grew up in a town that had a population of 5,504 in 1960. By 2010, 23,793 people now live in the same area. It's no wonder it feels "crowded" to me when I go back to visit. I live now just outside a city that also has ballooned in my lifetime - going from 67, 340 people in 1960 to just shy of 120,000 today. An estimated 100,000 more drive into/out of this city every day for work. Car culture has given American freedom lovers a great ability to move and to travel. But the population growth poses a new question - for those of us who love to get away from our fellow man at what point is there no where to go?
Which is where I circle back to my beloved polar bears. I take some heart knowing more people mean more scientists trying to understand our world and our co-inhabitants. Arctic research has been trying to understand, for decades, human impact and, more recently, the effects of climate change. But to understand the changes it helps to know the baseline. For polar researchers, that baseline has been elusive. The USGS has been compiling data about Beaufort Sea polar bear populations for years now and I love that recent technologies substantially increase our awareness of polar bears lives outside zoos and outside the fall terrestrially-based viewing season.
For example, Pagano, et al., have done years of research on what polar bears eat. We've known that polar bears were too big to "chase" their prey - preferring to wait at seal holes or be opportunists when walrus, seals or whales got trapped in small pockets of open water. But Pagano's work has exposed what truly efficient "fat converters" polar bears are. They are specialists and part of a larger community - stripping the fat off seal and whale carcasses, leaving other parts of their prey for other arctic predators.
And, when food is rich, eating together is not uncommon and the gathered bears interact in well established order. Where did these bears learn this order if, as previously supposed, they rarely interacted? Mehdi Bakhatiari's point-of-view cam challenged this assumption of isolation - how do we really know if polar bears are always alone? The cams and PBI's/WWF polar bear trackers put this old perspective in doubt.
Still, I wish that all the studying brought better news. Pagano's study on polar bear eating has found, "...that an increasing proportion of bears are unable to meet their energy demands." and that "..increases in movement and activity rates mediated by the loss of sea ice habitat are likely to have negative cascading effects on polar bear reproductive success and, ultimately, their populations." The Beaufort polar bear population has already seen a 40% decline.
And there is still an urgent, critical need for research about our impact on wildlife and indigenous societies as our consumption leads the oil and gas industry to expand into the Arctic. Recent work by Geoff York suggests that polar bear dens might be more resilient to human interference than initially feared (see also Arctic Today's article). But more study of dens is necessary (current identification of dens misses ~ 55%) and better criteria for protection has to be established if we are to continue wanting oil and wanting "wild."
So in pandemic times, I continue to research and learn. I find new work by young scientists who are fortunate to work side-by-side with their long-established mentors. And I continue to support the work and facilities that make the work possible. I joined an Earthwatch Climate Change class that included an episode from Churchill's Northern Studies Centre (you can watch it here: Science Matters Webinar series - Episode 2 with Churchill's Northern Studies)
I'm saddened to think that we may have reached a time in our global history where population growth challenges the very existence of "wild" - at least until our own extinction. But I hope that we can be a resilient species - one that uses our incredible capacity to learn and adapt to re-structure our consumption-based societies. And I will continue to embrace Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's challenge to live so that my deepest ethics are reflected in my daily choices. Will you join me?