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Polar Bears and Climate Change

This is not a test!

Each day, the first thing I do when I sit down at my computer is to check with the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) for the latest information on sea ice conditions and sea ice extent in the Arctic. At the beginning of August, it looked like the changes in sea ice extent over the summer were on pace to approach, or maybe even equal, the historic 2007 low. However, over the last couple of weeks, it has become clear that we were on a pace to overtake the 2007 record low and set a new minimum record for sea ice extent.

Several days ago, I checked the latest data; not only had we surpassed the 2007 low, we did it several weeks ahead of when the sea ice is typically at its lowest. This means we still have a few more weeks of sea ice melt to go, and the ultimate sea ice nadir for 2012 has not yet been reached. It is not hard to connect the dots and see that this is bad news for polar bears. However, what may not be obvious to most people is that this is bad news for wildlife all over the world and bad news for us.

Polar bears and the Arctic sea ice have long been noted as a “canary in a coal mine”; the changes in the Arctic environment provide a warning—a clear, loud, and un-ignorable warning—of how dramatically climate warming is changing our planet. We have to reduce our carbon footprint, and we have to do it NOW!

Even in light of this grim news, there are still signs that we are beginning to turn things around. Recent surveys have shown that an increasing majority of Americans understand that climate change is real and that the warming trends that have been documented over the past several decades are the result of human greenhouse gas emissions. The results of these surveys also suggest that most people understand that climate change will have catastrophic impacts on polar bears and other Arctic wildlife. For many of us, making the connection between our own everyday actions and the persistence of polar bears in the wild is enough to get us to make energy efficient choices.

However, we must also understand that, while the impacts of climate change are most vividly obvious in the remote Arctic, they are also impacting other habitats all over the world, including our own backyards, and that the resulting changes to our Earth will have far-reaching consequences for people everywhere. We have to do more. We have to move from “understanding” the impacts of climate change to “taking action” to reduce our carbon footprint.

Each and every one of us has the power to change our habitats in order to reduce our own personal greenhouse gas emissions. Future generations, and future generations of polar bears, are counting on you to reduce your carbon footprint.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Cub: 704 Grams.

Calculate your own carbon footprint and get suggestions and easy household tips that help you reduce your carbon footprint (and energy bill), or visit Polar Bears International.

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Polar Bears: Keeping Cool

Tatqiq knows how to stay cool!

The summer of 2012 will go down in history as one of the hottest on record. This brings lots of questions as to how polar bears at the San Diego Zoo can live in even the milder heat here. The first answer: our 130,000-gallon (490,000 liters) pool is chilled to under 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius). The shallow area allows the bears to lie down and even sleep if they choose. The mid-range allows for great soaking opportunities, and the 12-foot (3.6 meters) deep end allows for complete submersion and swimming. On most summer days, the breeze through the exhibit comes right off of San Diego Bay, so it is a cooling sea breeze. Throughout the exhibit there are numerous shaded areas with various bedding materials for the bears to sleep on. There is also a portable air conditioner we can direct up by the back area where they especially like to sleep. Inside the bedroom area, we also have air conditioning to take the heat out if absolutely necessary.

The real reason we can keep our polar bears comfortable, even on the hottest days, is by limiting the amount of fat they have on their body. For polar bears to survive the cold of the Arctic, they must build up at least 4.5 inches (11 centimeters) of fat over their body. They do this by eating seal blubber. A polar bear’s diet is 90 to 95 percent fat in the wild. They are so specialized for eating fat that they metabolize close to 90 percent of what they eat into body fat.

Here in San Diego, our nutrition staff has developed a diet that is 5- to 10-percent fat, so our polar bears get what they need for good health but not for bulking up for a cold winter. All of our bears would weigh much more than they do now if they had those fat layers. Kalluk, who is now over 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms), would probably be closer to 1,600 pounds (725 kilograms)! When polar bears put fat on, it goes first on their belly to protect their core. Do you know that the body temperature of a polar bear is the same as ours? 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius)! The fat then layers over their bum and spreads out over their body.

Here’s one way to tell our three apart: When you look at them in profile, Kalluk and Tatqiq have a rounding of their bellies, but from the top of the hip to the tail it’s flat. Since we keep a bit more weight on Chinook (just in case she might be pregnant), her belly is nice and round, and her bum matches! And let’s not forget the CARROTS! Polar bears get little to no nutrition or calorie from vegetation. Our three can eat as much as they like and not put on a pound. Currently, they get 100 pounds (45 kilograms) a day between them that gets chewed, swallowed, slightly steamed in their bellies, and then eliminated. As keepers, we call that job security!

One problem with warm weather we seem to be challenged with this summer is the algae growth. Our water quality team constantly monitors the pool’s water for safety and cleanliness, but algae is airborne until it finds moisture. With the warm temperatures and direct sun, we’re experiencing quite a bloom. We add rock salt to help, but, unfortunately, some of it has imbedded into Tatqiq and Kalluk’s hollow hair shafts. It sneaks in through the small breaks in the shaft formed by grooming. This won’t harm them in any way, but it’s pretty embarrassing to have polar bears with a greenish hue! Our polar bears were once famous for being green when they lived in the smaller grotto exhibit decades ago. Since moving to this exhibit in 1996, we’ve not had any “greening,” until this year. So in the next few days we’ll be hosting “spa days” for a purpose—mineral salt-water soaks for all! Chinook and Tatqiq have always been pros at the soak; Kalluk will be challenging, since he thinks it’s only about dive bombing his sister and then slurping the saltwater off his giant paws. He’s got 13 inches (33 centimeters) on each foot to slurp from!

Summer brings great fun but also great danger with the dry heat. It is sad to hear of fires burning across our nation, so many losing their homes. It’s heartbreaking to lose so much; thank goodness for insurance. In the past few decades, polar bears have lost their ice homes in an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined. We now see forest fires burning in the Canadian tundra, the place with one of the highest densities of polar bear denning, the place where our beloved Chinook was born. What insurance do they have? They have us. We must be the guardians of our planet. We must continue to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, especially when it seems there is no hope. We still know it can be done. We must be the insurance to protect and insure that our children and grandchildren will still have the opportunity see the magnificent polar bear roaming our planet.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Breeding Season.

Watch the polar bears daily on Polar Cam.

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Families Take Challenge to Go Green

Kalluk (left) and Chinook

Kalluk (left) and Chinook

The San Diego Zoo has recruited six families for a fun and educational challenge—to see if changes they make now can reduce their “carbon footprint.” What is a carbon footprint? It is the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating, transportation, and more. In the past several decades, humans have been releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than plants and oceans can absorb it.

To help reverse this trend, we’ll issue challenges to these families and ask them to share their experiences in a new blog section called Polar Blogs:

Challenge #1: What’s your carbon footprint?
We’ll find out how many tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each family typically produces (the average American is responsible for 21 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year). The San Diego Zoo will purchase acreage in a South American rain forest to offset each family’s footprint.

Challenge #2: Staying Warm for Winter
How do our families keep the chill at bay during the winter months, and what are some ways they can reduce their carbon use and still stay toasty? Readers can vote on the best reduction attempt, and the “losing” family will take a ceremonial “polar bear plunge”!

Challenge #3: A Green Valentine’s Day?
Can each family come up with a creative way to make a climate-change-reduction dinner, from store to table? Readers will vote on the best creation, and the winning family will receive the San Diego Zoo’s own Zoo Brew coffee.

Challenge #4: In the Dark?
Families will monitor their home’s electricity use and share their attempts to “hibernate.” Vote for the family you think made the best effort, and the winners will receive San Diego Zoo sweatshirts.

Challenge #5: It’s All Fun and Games
Our families will take a look at their recreational and entertainment choices. See what ideas they come up with to make going green fun! Your favorite family will receive a Caravan Safari Tour at the Wild Animal Park.

We hope you enjoy getting to know these brave souls. Please cheer them on by posting comments, suggestion, and tips for them. You can even figure out your own carbon footprint by using our online calculator. The choices we make in our daily lives—at home, travel and transportation, the food we eat, and what we buy and throw away—affect the health of the planet.

Can these families reduce their footprint upon the Earth over the next three months? We’ll find out!

Read blog posts from the families…