Save the Polar Bear

TIME looks at the plight of one of Earth's most charismatic creatures

Feb 27, 2014 | By Bryan Walsh for TIME

A polar bear in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area in Canada looks up in this photo by a Google photographer.

It’s International Polar Bear Day today, so if you live near 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.

A polar bear leans on a Tundra Buggy that is carrying the Google Street View Trekker.
A polar bear leans on a Tundra Buggy that is carrying the Google Street View Trekker.

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, Canada, 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 off-road vehicles known as tundra buggies.

Krista Wright is executive director of the conservation group Polar Bear International. She spoke to the CBC, a Canadian broadcaster, about Google’s program. “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,” she said.

Disappearing Sea Ice

Many scientists and conservationists fear that there may be far fewer polar bears in even the next 10 years, thanks mostly to the effects of climate change. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to reach their prey—mainly 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 to humans and that polar bears are not exactly friendly. That makes getting a proper count challenging. But 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. They are 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 for polar bears 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 suggest feeding 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 as seen in 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.