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Interview With Indianapolis Prize Winner and Polar Bear Researcher Steven Amstrup

Recognized for his role in animal conservation, Amstrup explains what climate change is doing to the arctic and what he's doing to stop it

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Steven Amstrup has studied polar bears in the arctic for decades and seen the impacts of climate change firsthand. Photo by Daniel J. Cox, Polar Bears International

After spending nearly 30 years studying polar bears in Alaska, researcher Steven Amstrup was the lead author on a series of studies that led to the species becoming the first to be officially listed as threatened, in 2008, due to the dangers of climate change. Since 2010, he has worked as the chief scientist for the organization Polar Bears International. Today it was announced that he is the 2012 recipient of the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. He spoke with the us about why he’s fascinated by polar bears, how they suffer from melting sea ice and why it’s still not too late to halt catastrophic climate change.

What first drew you to polar bears?

 For some reason, I’ve been captivated by bears ever since I was a kid. From the age of 5 or 6, I had this idea in my mind that I was going to go into the woods and study bears. As I matured, I realized that to do that, I needed to get a certain education, become a wildlife biologist. I was fortunate enough to get a project working on black bears in Idaho for my master’s degree, and when I graduated, I got a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. At that time, they were redesigning the polar bear research program. Because I was the only one at the time that had much experience with bears, I was a logical choice for that. My thought then was the same as my thought now—working with polar bears is about the ripest plum in the wildlife profession.

At that time, did you imagine polar bears would be such a crucial species in terms of climate change?

I did not have a clue. I started in 1980, and people were starting to talk about global warming, but it was limited to atmospheric science specialists and physicists. For us, it was cold in the arctic, and none of us ever thought about it much. There’s so much annual variation, so if we had periods of cooler weather or warmer weather, it just seemed like it was part of the natural order of things. What we didn’t realize was that the underlying baseline was moving up, so the warmer periods and the poorer ice years were becoming more frequent.

When I first went to Alaska, the summertime sea ice receded only a few miles from the shore. You could stand on the beach and see the ice out there, and maybe even see a polar bear out there. Now the ice is something like 300 miles off shore in the middle of the summer. It’s a very profound change, one I would never have imagined that I’d see in my lifetime.

How does climate change affect polar bears?

Polar bears have a very specialized lifestyle. They catch their food—largely two species of seals—from the surface of the sea ice. So the habitat that they require to catch their prey literally melts when the temperature rises. The link between a warmer world and polar bear welfare is very direct—more direct than probably for any other species. Their habitat is literally melting.

But polar bears are just one of many, many species affected by climate change. So if we act in time to save polar bears, we will have benefited most of the rest of life on earth, including humans.

What can we do to protect them?

An important thing to realize is that the challenge is more difficult now than it was just a few years ago. Every year that we delay, it gets increasingly difficult. But we really need to orient society towards a concept of sustainability, rather than continual growth.

Specifically, you can look at the different segments of our economy and see where the greatest gains could be. If you look at different sectors—things like heating buildings, transportation—you can see a variety of ways that we can reduce our emissions. We need to reduce our emissions by about 80 percent in the next 20 years to not exceed 450 parts per million by the end of the century. That’s a fairly daunting challenge. But if you think about the 80 percent, and then look at our per capita emissions compared to other parts of the world—we have nearly three times the per capita emissions as France, and nobody thinks of France of being undeveloped. We are, in this country, fairly wasteful.

Saving polar bears is first about recognizing this problem and what you can do about it as an individual, and then growing that to the community, and ever-larger communities, until we’re talking about national and international efforts. Right now, governments aren’t leading the charge. So what we’re trying to do is to start from the grassroots and then work it up to where we can force the government to lead.

What have you been doing since your team published those crucial papers that led to the listing of polar bears as threatened in 2008?

Somehow, one of the things that came out of our reports was the concept that polar bears were doomed, that the damage to the sea ice was irreversible because of “tipping points” in ice melt. We didn’t really say that, and if that’s the message that people were getting, it was not a good one: If people think there’s nothing they can do, they will do nothing.

So some of the members of my team, we did an analysis to look at whether there really were tipping points in sea ice melt. If there were, it might mean that future conservation initiatives, like mitigating greenhouse gases, would confer no benefit. We enlisted some of the best sea ice modelers in the field, and we produced a report published in 2010 in Nature that showed that, in fact, there didn’t appear to be tipping points in the Arctic sea ice, and that we certainly hadn’t crossed any. So the good news was that there was still time to take actions that will save polar bears.

At that point, I realized that although there were still more research questions, we already knew what we needed to do to save polar bears. It was a nice point in my career to move from being a researcher to doing outreach and education, to try to take advantage of the wisdom I had gained in 30 years to pass that on to the public and policymakers.

So I’ve since been working for an organization called Polar Bears International. It’s a small non-profit devoted to conserving polar bears and their arctic habitat. We’re mainly an education organization, so we do a variety of outreach initiatives. Every fall, we go up to Churchill, Manitoba—the place where polar bears are most visible—and we set up a high-speed Internet connection out on the tundra, and we invite scientists in to do interviews. We have a camera looking at the scientist, and polar bears roaming in the background, and students from all over the world can call in and talk to leading scientists.

Another one of our main initiatives is working with zoos around the country. One hundred seventy million people per year go through North American zoos, so our idea is: let’s have zoos be not just places of entertainment, but have their principal mission be focused on conservation. We’re channeling that specifically for polar bears, but it benefits everything else. The polar bears that are in the zoos can become ambassadors for their wild counterparts. People come in, they see the polar bear, and they get that sense of power and mystique of it, and then there’s important messaging that goes along with it. Hopefully, they take it home and are inspired to do something that will save polar bears in the wild.

Do you miss the arctic at all? 

Well, I hate being cold! But I really do miss the Arctic. The past two years, I haven’t gotten to go up North. It can be a horrible place in terms of comfort level, but on a clear day, when the sun is shining, and the sea is blue, it’s just fantastic. It’s hard to imagine a place that’s more captivating. You look at it, and it’s like the surface of the moon. So to think that out there somewhere are these giant white bears that have figured out a way to make a living, it’s amazing. It’d be nice to think that they’ll be able to do that into the future.

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