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What does climate crisis have to do with polar bears and reindeer?

None of us is a stranger to the topic of the climate crisis and the devastating effects it is having on the environment, wildlife and ultimately the future for ourselves and the next generation. Before my expedition to the Geographic North Pole in 2016, I was well aware of the discussions in the press. But it wasn’t until I stepped foot on the frozen Arctic ocean that it really hit home. Part of the expedition mission was to document the effects of climate change as we saw them: melting ice, fluctuating temperatures, and open water leads beneath our feet. And of course, the plight of the polar bear. Would we encounter a polar bear as we traversed the ice? Or are they now moving closer and closer to human habitats to survive? What effects has climate change had on their habits and habitat?

And what strikes me now is that only weeks after my website is launched which talks about my expeditions to the Geographic Poles amongst other things, I read a news story in about scientists in Svalbard witnessing polar bears hunting reindeer for food.

At the end of our expedition in April 2016 my diary entry reads, ‘all of us had definitely raised our own awareness, and perhaps we were even a bit shaken from what we had seen. We had been involved in a traumatic event and we were now coming back to report what we had seen: mass devastation.’

So, what did we see that could be having such a drastic effect on the polar bear habits?

Modern explorers have a role to play in observing and reporting how the climate crisis is affecting and damaging the world and bringing that information to the attention of as many people as possible.

As Stephan Harris, Climate Scientist at Exeter University explains in my forthcoming book, ‘over the past four decades or so, the sea ice has undergone a rapid transformation. It has changed from predominantly thick multi-year sea ice of around 3m thick to much thinner first-year sea ice (about 1.5m thick), where large patches of open water are common and when later autumn freezing and earlier summer melting are occurring.

During our expedition, we encountered our own dangers as a result of these effects. These included large open leads that we had to cross carefully so as not to fall into the frozen moving seawater below and huge fields of broken blocks of ice. These had been pushed upwards as large swathes of sea ice had melted and moved. With rising temperatures and the sea ice continuing to melt, there is a decrease in the areas of traditional hunting grounds for these mammals bringing them ever closer to human settlements.

With these changes, polar bears will have less time on the ice hunting for fat-rich food to give them energy and will stray into new territory which means spending more time on land, or they will perish. Polar bears now travel longer distances to stay within the receding sea ice in order to hunt for food. Seals are their main food source but the decline in sea ice is also affecting seal populations and behaviour. We must not forget that climate scientists predict polar bears could be extinct by the end of this century.

And the polar bears?

We did see polar bear footprints twice on the expedition. The first as we came out of our tent one morning - this was the point when we realised we were really in their territory. The huge footprints reminded me of ‘big foot’ and were only 300-400 metres away. Could the bear have been tracking us? They can track up to 20 miles because of their defined sense of smell. Are humans more likely to come into close contact with polar bears in this century than in the last century because of the decrease in their food sources due to the climate crisis?

These were all questions that we asked ourselves. After all, we were there to document what we saw on the sea ice which caused us to question things more deeply.

I sign off with a personal thought from my 2016 diary entry:

“I am not a climate scientist so I don’t blame anyone for not believing me, but what I witnessed back in 2016 on the Arctic Ocean sent shivers through myself and the team, as it should do for all of us. Something is happening up there, and it really isn’t looking good! Fast forward to today and what people are facing the world over, from bizarre weather fronts to bushfires and floods, all happening right in front of our very distracted and blinkered eyes.”

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