Are polar bears in imminent danger of extinction? Well, it depends…

Is melting Arctic sea ice a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it depends…

Will warmer temperatures in the Arctic allow life to thrive where now it struggles? Well, it depends…

I suspect you’ve a detected a frustrating trend here. “Well, it depends” is not the answer one likes to hear when faced with big, important questions like the ones above. In fact, if you want to end an interview real fast, just start your answer with, “Well, it depends…” I can assure you that your interviewer will leave you in a heartbeat and find someone willing to say “yes” or “no.”

The problem is that the most accurate scientific answers to those and many other important questions do start with “Well, it depends.” Take the polar bear question for example. There are 19 populations of polar bears. Some are in trouble, some are increasing, and the status of several is completely unknown. Bears in western Hudson Bay appear to be doing relatively poorly. They are thinner and having fewer cubs as the length of time they spend fasting on land increases. But Inuit in other areas report seeing more bears than ever, so it may depend on what polar bear population you’re referring to.

Some populations of polar bears appear to be benefiting from climate change, while others are struggling.

Some populations of polar bears appear to be benefiting from climate change, while others are struggling.

Bears rely on sea ice to do their hunting and the sea ice extent is declining. But bears specifically prefer first-year ice (ice that is less than one year old), and the amount of first-year ice has doubled in the last 30 years as the older, thicker ice disappears. The fate of polar bears depends on many factors and their relationships are complicated.

Is melting sea ice a bad thing? Well, that depends on your perspective. Sea ice melting earlier and freezing later could allow for more resource extraction, adding millions to northern economies. But to a person that needs the ice to hunt and to travel, loss of sea ice could be catastrophic.

Many animals rely on the sea ice for denning, hunting, migrating and resting so we could expect to see a negative impact as we lose sea ice. But less ice means more sunlight reaching the water, and more sunlight might mean greater productivity leading to more food availability. It also might not; it depends on the amount of nutrients available, among other things.

The affects of climate change on smaller organisms, like the polar shrimp, remain unknown.

While warmer Arctic waters and more sunlight could increase food for organisms like the polar shrimp, we don’t yet know whether that’s a good or bad thing.

Surely warmer temperatures will be good for plant life in the Arctic. That seems sensible, but why, then, have the last four years seen decreases in overall productivity and biomass? It obviously depends on something we don’t yet understand.

We know things are changing very quickly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic Report Card last week and the degree of change is remarkable, if not frightening. While many of the impacts of these changes remain uncertain, we are beginning to see real effects on wildlife and people in Canada’s Arctic. The struggling bears in western Hudson Bay are just one example of the impacts of a lengthening ice-free period.

The way our generation responds in the face of these changes will ultimately determine their severity. So, while so many of the answers to questions about Arctic change do indeed begin with “Well, it depends,” we should not take all this uncertainty and qualification as an excuse not to act. After all, one of the main things on which it depends is our action or inaction.

Blog post by Eric Solomon, director of Arctic Connections at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.  

Learn more about issues facing Canada’s Arctic at www.vanaqua.org/ournorth

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