Biologist Andrew Derocher wasn’t thinking of climate change when he first started studying polar bears in Hudson Bay in the 1980s. About a decade into his career, a picture started to emerge: as sea ice diminished due to human-caused global warming, the polar bears he was studying were venturing onto land earlier and returning to the ice later in the season.
It didn’t take long for the world to notice, and soon the research was picked up by media, conservation groups and climate deniers alike, he said, turning the polar bear into an icon of a warming world, for better or worse.
“Polar bears were just an early harbinger of change,” Derocher said.
That status was understandable; polar bears are the kind of furry mammal we love to love — from a distance.
But as an icon in the fight against climate change, there are drawbacks, including, as Derocher notes, situating the problem as “far away and remote” for Canadians living outside the Arctic.
Inuit hunters have been vilified, and those who want to cast doubt on climate science have targeted the often simplified messaging of polar bears in peril.
Now, with extreme weather showing up across the country — in more frequent and severe wildfires, drought and flooding — Derocher said climate change is becoming a more immediate issue for many people, sometimes quite literally in their backyards, that doesn’t need a distant mascot.
What On Earth26:26How polar bears became a climate icon, for better or worse.
The polar bear’s rise to notoriety
For Derocher, how polar bears became an “accidental icon of climate change” goes back a few decades.
It started with monitoring the animal to support the polar bear hunt — looking at their numbers, health and survival. Meanwhile, other scientists were collecting data about sea ice, but no one had put the two things together.
In 1993, Derocher and another scientist, Ian Stirling, co-authored a paper, Possible Impacts of Climatic Warming on Polar Bears.
In the Arctic, the oceans freeze at the surface, forming sea ice, which plays a role in keeping the climate cool by reflecting sunlight away. The ice is also part of the ecosystem, holding nutrients and contributing to the entire food web when it melts, from phytoplankton up to the large animals like seals, which polar bears eat.
Some sea ice melts in the summer and reforms in the winter, but data was starting to show the trend in sea ice was shifting and with it, the habitat polar bears rely on.
When Derocher and his colleagues reassessed the link between polar bears and climate change in 2004, that paper “ignited the interest” of the media, Derocher said.
News outlets weren’t alone. In 2006, former vice president Al Gore featured an animated vignette of a polar bear drowning in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Conservation groups and climate deniers had also taken note.
“It became sort of the villain for the people and those interest groups that didn’t want to see climate action, i.e., controls of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Derocher. “There’s sort of been some pluses and minuses to polar bears as the icon of climate change.”
A picture is just part of the story
In 2017, a conservation group released a video of an emaciated polar bear that went viral. In one version of the video, text says, “This is what climate change looks like.”
The story that emerged was more nuanced, and people in Nunavut cautioned the footage showed a polar bear at the end of its life rather than the dramatic image of global warming that was suggested.
For Derrick Pottle, an Inuk hunter and guide in Nunatsiavut, in northern Labrador, the polar bear, or nanuq in Inuktitut, conjures up a much different image than an animal vulnerable to climate change.
It’s “probably the most powerful animal or mammal that we have in our homelands,” he said. “We understand its strength, its intelligence … the will that it has to live and it represents who we are.”
For Pottle, the polar bear as a climate icon has had “a negative impact on the way that we live here in the north.”
Now in his sixties, he has harvested ten polar bears in his life.
“You are so happy and so proud to bring back a food and a meat source and an opportunity to make a few dollars for your family or you have put clothing on your back,” he said.
Polar bear harvesters used to earn as much as $20,000 for a hide, said Pottle, but now would be lucky to get $5,000. He said activists fighting against polar bear hunting make things increasingly difficult.
In Nunatsiavut, a dozen polar bears can be legally hunted each year. In 1973, Arctic countries from around the world signed an agreement to conserve polar bears internationally, and in 2008 the United States listed the polar bear as a threatened species; Canada listed the animal as a species of special concern in 2011.
For Pottle there are more urgent signs of climate change than polar bears, like the impacts on hunting and trapping. Water that used to freeze by November in the 1980s now freezes in early January and melts in April rather than May or June, he said.
“One time we could read the ice and we had an understanding of how it formed,” he said. “Half the time you don’t know what you’re going onto.”
While melting sea ice is changing polar bears’ habitat and will continue to do so, for now, some subpopulations of the animal have rebounded, and Pottle worries his experience as a hunter and guide is not being taken seriously.
Subpopulations provide a more nuanced picture
Biologist Andrew Derocher says the health of the polar bear is “a complex issue.”
“We’ve got more [polar] bears now than we did in 1973,” he said.
“The challenge is we have also very good information that at least three populations of polar bears have declined due to the loss of sea ice and we suspect that that pattern will just increase.”
Those complexities have been exploited by people arguing against the scientific consensus that global warming is real and caused mostly by the combustion of fossil fuels.
“Climate change deniers tried to come at polar bears because I think if they felt they could turn the tide of public opinion about that relationship between sea ice loss and polar bears, then the whole issue of climate change would just somehow unravel,” said Derocher.
There are 19 subpopulations of polar bears living around the world in the Arctic with no “one-size-fits-all” picture of how they are responding to climate change, said Derocher.
“Every polar bear in the world has experienced a change in their access to sea ice in the last 30 years,” said Jasmine Ware, a polar bear biologist with the government of Nunavut, which plays a role in managing more than half of the global population of polar bears.
Ware said how those changes to sea ice are affecting polar bears depends on where in the Arctic they live.
Churchill, Man., near where Andrew Derocher does his research, is the southernmost part of the polar bear’s range.
As global warming continues to accelerate, “we’re seeing more and more bears going into dumps … from James Bay right through to the high Arctic communities, and that’s a recipe for problems,” said Derocher.
Co-existence is key
In July, a report co-authored by Derocher, cautioned that human food is an “emerging threat” to polar bears, emphasizing the need to secure things like garbage to help keep polar bears away and people safe.
Over the decades, Churchill, Man., has taken measures to improve safety by securing garbage and creating a warning system, setting an example for other Arctic communities.
Each year when the ice melts, some polar bears make their way to land and follow the western shore of Hudson Bay, through the community of Arviat, Nunavut, which sees the greatest number of interactions between people and polar bears in the territory, said Ware.
“There is a change,” said Ware. “A bear could be encountered at any time. [There is] a very, very strong understanding that this is a dangerous experience and can be fatal.”
In 2018, Aaron Gibbons died protecting his children from a polar bear when he was out hunting.
Since 2010, monitors have patrolled Arviat to keep polar bears away from the community.
When Leo Ikakhik gets a phone call about a bear, he never knows what to expect when he shows up. “It’s always a guessing game,” he said. “I wonder if the bear’s going to run or is the bear going to just stand his ground?”
Ikakhik uses bear bangers, which make a loud noise to deter the bear, and said he has been lucky to never have resorted to using the rifle he carries as a backup.
Moving beyond the polar bear as climate icon
Kari Marie Norgaard, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at University of Oregon, can see why polar bears did catch on as a symbol of Arctic change.
“It’s something that children have an attachment to or it’s this iconic animal in certain ways. But I think we need lots and lots of symbols, not just one,” she said.
“Any kind of symbol that points to collective action… would be more useful.”
Rather than an icon, it might be talking about how climate change is affecting someone personally that motivates action, said Norgaard.
Norgaard works with the Karuk Tribe in California restoring Indigenous fire practices, which can help manage wildfires and the risks nearby communities face.
“We are not helpless, but we have to understand what we can do.”