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Protecting Polar Bears and Our Planet

3 Oct 2018

 

You can't help but hear the passion in Alysa McCall's voice as she talks about her work with polar bears. “I don't know how you couldn't fall in love with polar bears really!” she says with a laugh. Alysa is the director of conservation outreach and a staff scientist at Polar Bears International (PBI), an organization dedicated to conserving polar bears and the sea ice they depend on for survival. Simons collaborated with PBI this fall on The North Star capsule collection in our Twik department, a portion of whose proceeds will go towards supporting Polar Bears International and the important work they do. We recently had the extraordinary opportunity to speak with Alysa in order to learn more about polar bears, their plight, and what we can do to help.

During our interview, Alysa tells us a bit about her career path and how she decided she wanted to work in biology. “I'd always loved wild animals and been interested in conservation. [...] In high school, a friend's dad was a provincial biologist and I remember the first time I learned that, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you can get paid for that? That's amazing!'“ 

Her love of polar bears began when she started studying them in grad school under leading polar bear scientist Dr. Andrew Derocher and volunteering with Polar Bears International. Once she finished her studies, PBI offered her a position on their staff and, as you can clearly tell from talking to her, Alysa absolutely loves what she does. “I've been very grateful that this is what I get to do. It doesn't feel like a job very often. It just feels like I get to do amazing cool stuff and make a living out of it, so I feel very fortunate.”

 

 

Besides helping with research projects run by Polar Bears International and other scientists in the field, an important part of Alysa's job is informing the public about the scientific findings of these studies and educating people about these incredible Arctic creatures. “The more we can learn about polar bears, the better we can protect them and their future,” she explains. 

 

Alysa takes the time to share with us a few of her favourite facts about her beloved bears: 

Polar bear fur isn't actually white. It's hollow and clear. It looks white to humans because our eyes scatter the full range of light.

Polar bears have black skin, but we're not quite sure why. One theory is that it may help them absorb heat.

They have an excellent sense of smell and can pick up scents up to a kilometre away. They use their keen sense of smell to help them navigate, walking perpendicular to the wind in order to get a whiff of as many scents as they can. Once they smell something that interests them, they'll change direction to follow the smell. 

Polar bear are marine mammals, meaning that they are fully dependent on the ocean and the sea ice in order to get their food.

They have adapted to eat fat and can eat over 100 pounds of it in a sitting. These bears have a high fat assimilation process. In fact, 90% of all the fat they eat will go directly onto their body, stored as an energy resource for when food is scarce and as insulation for when they swim in frigid Arctic waters. 

Their home ranges are some of the largest in the world, bigger than the size of many U.S. states, and despite being marine mammals, they're one of the most mobile terrestrial animals in the world.

While polar bears are the largest bear in the world, they being extremely tiny when they are born, weighing in at just over a pound and being the size of a chunk of butter. They grow extremely fast since their mother's milk is some of the fattiest that we find on land, containing 32% fat (essentially, it's whipped cream). They grow 20 times their size in just a couple months in order to be ready to head to the sea ice.

 

In addition to developing educational programs for the public, Polar Bears International also uses social media to share extraordinary images and video clips of these fascinating bears in the wild. Their goal? To inspire people around the globe to feel connected to these amazing animals and the Arctic, to be concerned about the welfare of this region, and to understand what the threats to the area and its wildlife mean for our world as a whole. 

 

Rising temperatures from climate change are causing the polar bears' sea ice home to melt, which, in addition to endangering polar bears, is also extremely bad news for humans. Alysa explains that Arctic sea ice is not only where the base of the ocean food chain grows, but it also acts as an air conditioner for the earth and helps to regulate the temperature of our planet. “The sea ice habitat is this critical area of the world that the polar bears need, but we all rely on it. […]  At the end of the day, polar bears are tied to people in so many ways and to protect polar bears is to protect our own future too.”

According to Alysa, loss of habitat is a common threat to many animals, but in the case of polar bears, “It's a tricky conservation issue.” While concrete actions like setting aside areas of land or planting trees can be taken to preserve habitat for other animals, with sea ice, “We have to be proactive. We can't put a border around sea ice and we can't just grow more of it when we need to. It's really something that the world needs to work together on to basically cool down the atmosphere and get us back to normal, which will benefit people too.“ 

Alysa mentions some of the ways we can help fight global warming and the disappearance of the polar bears' sea ice home, like voting for leaders who care about the environment, who are talking about climate change, and who are looking for energy solutions. She also recommends googling what energy options are near you, looking into solar power, driving eco-friendly cars, taking public transit, and working to improve the transit system in your own community. On a day-to-day level, she suggests making an effort conserve energy at home, reducing how much we drive, eating more veggie-based meals during the week, and talking to our family and friends about our concern for the environment and the actions we're taking to improve our planet.

Alysa ends our interview with a message that gives us real hope. “It absolutely is possible to save polar bears and keep them in the Arctic,” she says. “If the world gets its stuff together and can make these carbon changes, we know that sea ice will come back. It's been shown by science. We can have polar bears forever, so we don't need to lose them, but it's basically up to us and our choices.”

 

 

Join Simons in making a difference with the help of our The North Star collection at Twik, produced in collaboration with Polar Bears International. For each piece purchased, $5 will be donated to the Canadian division of Polar Bears International to help them protect polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. Together, let's help these creatures continue to brighten the Arctic where their lives are being threatened.  

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