Reasons to Be Hopeful this International Polar Bear Day: a Future for Children and Cubs

BJ Kirschhoffer B0020848 scaled e1676993656626 Reasons to Be Hopeful this International Polar Bear Day: a Future for Children and Cubs
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Reasons to Be Hopeful this International Polar Bear Day: a Future for Children and Cubs

Guest Post by: Alysa McCallPolar Bears International Director of Conservation Outreach and Staff Scientist

Steven C Amstrup 000102 Reasons to Be Hopeful this International Polar Bear Day: a Future for Children and Cubs
Photo: © Steven Amstrup / Polar Bears International

Polar bear moms and cubs are snuggled in their snow dens across the Arctic right now, a time we celebrate with International Polar Bear Day on Monday, February 27. As a mom myself, and a scientist for Polar Bears International, I find myself thinking about the next generation of children and cubs more than ever – and I’m feeling increasingly hopeful that, together, we can write a better future for them. 

We often say that the Arctic affects us all, with climate impacts in our backyards. While the Arctic may feel far away, I’m excited that the premiere of three short films on International Polar Bear Day will make it seem a bit closer. All filmed in the snowy, mountainous terrain of Svalbard, Norway, you can walk in the footsteps of Violet, a young polar bear mom, or spend a day in the life of either of my colleagues BJ Kirschhoffer and Joanna Sulich. You can also join my colleagues for live chats on February 27, asking them questions and learning about all things moms and cubs with Dr. Thea Bechshoft or field research updates with our team in Svalbard. 

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Steeps slopes in Svalbard, Norway, where polar bear families den Photo: © Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Super Moms

Pregnant moms are the only polar bears that den, and while the others are out on the ice, they’re in their dens giving birth to some of the most helpless babies of any mammal. It’s an incredibly vulnerable time, and as a mom myself, it’s hard to imagine parenting in sub-zero temperatures without the support of coffee and Baby Shark. All moms work hard, but polar bears are undoubtedly some of the hardest-working single moms.

Right now, the moms are nursing anywhere from one to three cubs – I’ve been fortunate enough to see juvenile triplets with their mom near Churchill, Canada. By the time they leave their dens in March or April, the mom will have fasted for almost eight months – so it’s time to get hunting! The mom will teach her young how to hunt, swim and survive in the Arctic, a journey that comes to life in Violet. Polar bears must learn and grow rapidly, with moms weaning them after about two and a half years.

Caring for Cubs

Only about half of all cubs survive to adulthood, and even fewer in some polar bear populations depending on conditions, so it’s important to give them the best possible chance. However, there are still many knowledge gaps, so our team at Polar Bears International is leading research to learn more about their early years and help us better protect families. 

My colleagues are heading to Svalbard, where they’ll conduct maternal den studies with our partners at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the Norwegian Polar Institute, placing remote solar-powered cameras near known den sites to noninvasively record the behavior of moms and cubs when they emerge in spring. Another way we can protect young polar bears is by keeping their dens safe from industrial activity. This is no easy task, as polar bear dens are invisible under the snow, but as industry expands into the Arctic, it’s increasingly important to know where they are. We’re working with partners at Brigham Young University, Simon Fraser University and NORCE to develop new den-detection radar technologies that use remote sensing to “see through” the snow and pinpoint polar bear dens. 

Setting up Maternal den cam Svalbard 2022 Kt Miller 1088234 scaled Reasons to Be Hopeful this International Polar Bear Day: a Future for Children and Cubs
Joanna Sulich and BJ Kirschhoffer setting up a maternal den camera in Svalbard Photo: © Kt Miller / Polar Bears International
Testing SAR Svalbard 2022 Kt Miller 1099836 scaled Reasons to Be Hopeful this International Polar Bear Day: a Future for Children and Cubs
Testing new den-detection radar in Svalbard Photo: © Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Encouraged by Education

As a mom, I’m encouraged by these developments that are contributing to a safer world for polar bear cubs, while being equally as passionate about creating a better future for our children. Throughout the year, we work with thousands of classrooms, and I host Tundra Connections scientist chats with students of all ages. These chats along with our live Polar Bear Cams, Northern Light Cams, and Beluga Whale Cams in partnership with explore.org reached over 4 million people in 2022 – it’s amazing to see Arctic love spreading all over the world!

We also partnered with organizations like Students on Ice and Connected North, and added three new curricula to our website, including “Paws Up for Polar Bears,” which focuses on climate change and climate action. We also led a seven-month Climate Alliance program for zoo professionals, and in 2022 we trained 21 professionals from three different countries on the most effective ways to communicate about polar bears, sea ice, and climate change, bringing the total to 186 graduates. 

It’s encouraging to see the climate education momentum level up to national and global stages, with countries like the US passing its strongest climate legislation yet while COP27 saw the cryosphere included in policy texts. While there is still lots of work to be done, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the progress. As we start a new year and think about the new polar bear cubs being born, I feel energized by reflecting on wins from international policy to polar bear conservation.

Get involved:

If you’d like to participate in climate action, we encourage you to make a positive difference this International Polar Bear Day:

    • Take the “Survive to 5 Challenge.” Since the first five years are the most vulnerable time in a polar bear’s life, you can help by starting a fundraiser to give polar bear cubs the best possible chance. Invite your friends and family – the top three fundraisers will receive prizes. 
    • Become an advocate for the Arctic with this toolkit, full of graphics and information. 
  • Spread the polar bear love! Send an e-card or share content from our toolkit with #PolarBearDay #ProtectMomsAndCubs #TalkAboutIt #WeSupportPolarBears. And don’t forget to tag @polarbearsinternational (@polarbears on Twitter)!
  • Recharge: Cultivating rest and inspiration are crucial parts of being an advocate for positive change – I enjoy chilling out with the Northern Lights Live Cam, enjoying the aurora borealis dance over Churchill, Canada.

From cubs to classrooms, there are wonderful changes happening around us. I hope you join us in celebrating International Polar Bear Day.

BJ Kirschhoffer B0020848 scaled Reasons to Be Hopeful this International Polar Bear Day: a Future for Children and Cubs
Mom and cubs near Churchill, Canada Photo: © BJ Kirschhoffer / polarbearsinternational.org

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