The Great Polar Bear Debate

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Last month, biologist and National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen shot a video of an ailing polar bear. He shared it online to bring attention to seasonal starvation that is aggravated by climate change. The story got my attention: More than a decade ago, in my first real job as a journalist for a magazine about Northern Canada, I had written a profile of Nicklen. He was raised in Kimmirut–a tiny, remote community of Inuit on Baffin Island. Since then his speciality as a photographer has been polar wildlife. The man knows his polar bears.

Nevertheless, the moment the video went viral, everybody had an opinion about how dumb the videographers must have been. They all had a better explanation for this bear’s predicament. You would think they had talked to the bear themselves. A monitor in Arviat, Nunavut, insisted the bears he saw were healthy and thriving. He didn’t lose an opportunity to scoff at the stupidity of the southerners he assumed took the video. “Since I’m from the North, I wouldn’t really fall for the video,” he said.

I’m no bear expert, but my money is on Nicklen when it comes to how screwed the Arctic is right now. And the issue around whether the polar bear population is thriving or tanking is more negotiable than one might think. Over millions of square kilometres, counting is not a simple matter. Here is a post of mine from 2012 when the same issue was already being debated, along with sightings of “grolar pizzlies” — hybrids between polar bears and grizzlies. If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of decades of climate change, it’s that people will keep on denying that anything is wrong until the problem is too far gone to solve. We need to stop waiting for a consensus, and move.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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