It's International Polar Bear today, so if you live within shouting distance of the Arctic Circle, hug the closest polar bear. (Actually do not do that—an adult male polar bear is nearly half a ton of hungry predator and they are extremely dangerous.) Still, the beasts deserve a little tenderness.
The polar bear is now considered a vulnerable species, under threat from the loss of its sea ice habitat. To draw attention to their plight, Google is now offering glimpses of polar bears in their native environment, via its Street View program. Cameras in Cape Churchill and Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba captured images of polar bears doing their polar bear thing during an annual gathering in the region in October and November. You can see pictures of polar bears sparring, and a mother nursing her cub, all against the flat white and brown background of the Arctic. The footage was taken with Google's Street View Trekker—15 cameras mounted on a backpack—from aboard the decidedly off-road vehicles known tundra buggies
"It provides an opportunity to document what it looks like now, the potential to document what it looks like next year, five years from now, 10 years from now," Krista Wright, executive director of the conservation group Polar Bear International, told the CBC.
Many scientists and conservationists fear that there may be far fewer polar bears in even that single-decade time frame, thanks chiefly to the effects of climate change. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to reach their prey, chiefly seals, and summer sea ice is melting fast. Despite a rebound from a record low in 2012, the extent of Arctic sea ice is generally trending downwards, often dramatically. As the ice vanishes, polar bears are forced to swim longer and longer distances to reach those hunting platforms, which is taking a toll on the species.
Exactly how vulnerable polar bears are is not clear, partially due to the fact that they live in such a forbidding climate and are themselves not exactly friendly. That makes getting a proper count challenging. (Google is helping with this as well: researchers are using Google Earth satellite images to count polar bears from space.) Still, most experts agree that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears alive, scattered around the Arctic—a perilously small number though some subpopulations have rebounded, in part because of restrictions on hunting. There's also evidence that polar bears are changing their dietary habits, possibly to adapt to the loss of sea ice, shifting from seals to snow geese, caribou and berries. But polar bear subpopulations are still trending downward in many areas of the Arctic, and if climate change keeps vaporizing sea ice, the pressure on the bears will only increase.
Of course, that's true of many, many species; in fact, a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change just found that global warming dramatically increases the risk of extinction for amphibians and reptiles. Yet how many other species are so popular that Coca-Cola will change the color of its cans just to draw attention to their plight, as the company did in 2011? Last year a policy paper in Conservation Letters laid out an ambitious plan to save polar bears in the face of global warming, even going so far as to feed starving bears directly—an amazing thought, given the obvious risks. Why go to such great lengths to save the polar bear, and not, say Mexico's critically endangered pygmy raccoon?
The truth is there's no perfect reason, but it's the sort of triage we'll be doing more and more often in the future as we face down the sixth extinction. (For more on that, check out Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent new book on the subject.) Which brings us back to Google Street View and those candid shots of polar bears in their element. There is something majestic about a polar bear against the backdrop of the Arctic, something wild and worth saving. And the polar bear dearly needs saving.