Through the long and dark Arctic winter, the mother Polar Bear sat quietly in her den. She had given birth to her cubs, and was waiting for them to grow strong enough to follow her out to the ice pack. The ice pack is her refrigerator, the place where she gets her food. It’s quite literally a floating, rotating gyre or “cap” of ice that covers the Earth’s northern pole. Along its edges of cracked and broken ice swims the Polar Bear’s food: ringed seals, bearded seals, harp and hooded seals and, occasionally, carcasses of beached beluga whales, walruses, narwhals, and bowhead whales.
After months of waiting in her den with her cubs, the mother Polar Bear comes out weak and starving. She can almost smell her next meal: fresh seals swimming in the water on the edge of the ice cap.
When she ambles out, followed by her two cubs, she’s looking much thinner than she did a few months ago. There is not a moment to lose. She needs to pack in as much energy as she possibly can. She’ll need to swim with her cubs to edge of the ice cap, and hunt for seal pups and other animals that are swimming near the edge. She is a good swimmer, but a hungry and weak Polar Bear can only swim so far.
She reaches the edge of the land, and jumps right in, and swims several miles to reach the ice pack. There she noses around near the edge of the broken drift ice, looking into the waters for a seal to catch. She finally senses a ripple in the water. In a flash, she strikes out with her giant paws, and the next moment a struggling seal is trapped in her mouth. She drags the seal away from the edge and quickly devours the much needed fat that her body needs to fight the Arctic cold.
This is her life pretty much throughout the year. Polar bears hunt all year. But springtime is the best for them as the seals have just pupped in large numbers. The bears are nomads, that is to say, they move around from place to place in search of food. They can stay on the drift ice all year and hunt all year. They sleep on the drift ice at any time of the day that they wish as they have no predators (that’s right, no one to hunt them down, except humans who kill them for their fur.) They only have to come to land to have babies, which the mother does every two or three years.
The Arctic Polar Bear’s story is a sad sign of global warming. We bring you a first person account by scientist-engineer turned amateur documentary filmmaker Ashok K Vaish who sailed through the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean on a special expedition, and brought back images and tales of an Earth in danger of meltdown.
Last year I saw the effects of global warming first hand when I traveled to the arctic region near the North Pole. We were in an ice-breaker near the island of Spitsbergen in Norway close to the polar ice cap (about 81 degrees North, latitude). We had gone there to take photographs of wild life – the polar bears, walruses, seals and birds that make this stark but fragile landscape their home.
To understand the danger facing the Arctic Polar Bear, we first need to understand the dangers facing our planet. Our earth is an ideal place for life to flourish. It is covered by a layer of air – our atmosphere – which is essential for all living things. The atmosphere provides us with the oxygen that we breathe, acts like a blanket to keep us warm and protects us from deadly radiation from the Sun and flying meteors from outer space.
The temperature of the earth is regulated by the atmosphere by keeping the Sun’s radiant heat (absorbed by the dark earth) from escaping back into the cold space at night.
This is called the Greenhouse Effect and you may have experienced it if you have been to a plant nursery where it can be quite warm even if it is chilly outside.
Every time we breathe or burn something we convert oxygen in the air to carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide in turn is used by plants to breathe and is converted back to oxygen creating a balanced cycle. The total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is quite small. If we increase our oxygen burning – for example by burning a lot of coal or oil to generate electricity or run our cars – and cut down trees, we increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. This makes the air a little heavier and it starts acting like a thicker blanket around our earth, warming it up. The actual amount of warming is only a few degrees but it is enough to disrupt the delicate balance of nature – melt the polar ice, raise sea levels, cause violent hurricanes and endanger species such as the polar bears.
The polar bears are born in dens or caves on land while their mother sleeps through the winter. The mother and the babies emerge around March famished from a long seclusion and must immediately hunt to feed themselves to stay alive. Now, polar bears cannot hunt on land, the only hunting they know is to catch seals from floating ice in the open ocean.
The floating ice is located at the edge of the polar ice cap – a floating frozen mass that covers the North Polar arctic region, which is all ocean. So in March the polar bear mother and cubs swim from the land in Spitsbergen to the edge of the polar ice cap so that they can hunt.
Normally this is a short swim, since in March the polar ice cap is very close to the land, and the polar bears, even babies, are good swimmers. However, last year we saw that the polar ice cap had really shrunk in size due to meltdown from global warming.
This meant that the polar bears had to swim many miles from the land in Spitsbergen – sometimes hundreds of miles – to find the floating ice where they can hunt.
Swimming hundreds of miles, specially when you are famished and have hungry babies in tow is really very hard and many bears are dying through drowning and starvation.
The polar bear population in the Spitsbergen area was once threatened by hunters. In the 1970’s a ban on hunting was imposed and the polar bear population has been steadily increasing from just a few hundred to about 2000 – 3000. This was a great success story. However, now, owing to global warming, the population is again endangered. If we do not reverse our emissions of carbon dioxide we can lose these beautiful animals forever.
The polar bears are just one example of endangered animals because of man’s great appetite for energy which is obtained by burning fossil fuels. All life on earth could be in the balance unless we change our ways. What can we do? To reduce the carbon dioxide in the air we must conserve and make energy without burning coal and oil. For example, we can use the Sun or the wind to generate electricity. In India already an increasing and impressive amount of electricity is being produced using wind power and a third of our energy comes from hydroelectric generation which is also “green”, i. e. produces no burning of oxygen to produce carbon dioxide. We have plenty of sunshine and must have a solar power generating strategy in our future planning. We must also cut down on needless driving or leaving lights on. In addition we have to stop cutting down forests and must start planting more trees.
Ashok K Vaish is a man of many parts and he has allowed his life to be a tapestry of many many colorful threads. After an engineering degree from IIT Delhi in 1968, he went on to complete his PhD in Structural Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and an MBA from St Mary’s College in Moraga, California in 1981. From designing nuclear power plants and offshore oil rigs to working on artificial intelligence applications, Ashok Vaish has done it all. Since 1991, he’s focussed on nurturing the dreams and talents of others by providing start-up and seed capital to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Alongside, he has explored the startling terrains of Patagonia, the Arctic Tundra and many other parts of the world. His passions include nature photography, travel and wildlife, astronomy, archaeology, mathematics, science and philanthropy.