Weekly Feature



2011-02-23 / Front Page

Climate change affecting ‘bear’ necessities

by JOLENE ZANGHI Reporter


Erika Burr, 9, of the Town of Tonawanda, and Buffalo Zoo Curator of Education Tiffany Vanderwerf examine a cast of a polar bear skull that was passed around the audience Sunday, as part of the zoo’s speaking tour, “Be Cool for Polar Bears,” held at The Church of the Nativity in the Town of Tonawanda. Photo by John Rusac Purchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com Erika Burr, 9, of the Town of Tonawanda, and Buffalo Zoo Curator of Education Tiffany Vanderwerf examine a cast of a polar bear skull that was passed around the audience Sunday, as part of the zoo’s speaking tour, “Be Cool for Polar Bears,” held at The Church of the Nativity in the Town of Tonawanda. Photo by John Rusac Purchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com The first frost of the season showed up two weeks late in Churchill, Manitoba, and Tiffany Vanderwerf knew something was wrong.

“To actually experience the weather happening later than it should be was very sobering,” she said. “The global temperature has already gone up 1 degree. Many may say, ‘So what?’ but it does have a huge effect on the weather.”

Vanderwerf, the curator of education at the Buffalo Zoo, had the opportunity to study how climate change is affecting the polar bear species in Churchill during a leadership camp in October. On Sunday, she gave a public presentation at the Church of the Nativity in the Town of Tonawanda, as part of the “Be Cool for Polar Bears” speaking tour.

Along with several scientists, zoo educators and members of wildlife organizations across the United States, Vanderwerf spent one week in Churchill, living in a Tundra Lodge and traveling in a Tundra Buggy — an all-terrain vehicle used for photographing and observing polar bears in their natural habitat.

Vanderwerf’s group specifically studied the polar bear population in the western Hudson Bay area, where in October and November, many of the bears begin to gather for their “walking hibernation” cy- cle. Polar bears don’t hibernate like all other members of the bear species and stay active year-round, but they still rely on stored body fat to survive, she said.

Those attending the lecture were shown slides on how the gradual global temperature change is causing many difficulties for the polar bear population.

Due to the ice covering areas much later than usual and thawing too early, the bears are struggling to find food. During the last 25 years, the normal 125-day time period for walking hibernation has shifted to 165 days, telling scientists and educators that the female bears are fasting longer, Vanderwerf said.

This fact alone is having a few major effects on bear populations: Fewer cubs are being born, and the ones that do make it have a tendency to be smaller and unhealthy.

Vanderwerf said the female bears also don’t have as much time to eat and teach their cubs survival skills because of the ice breaking up sooner.

Polar bears, considered marine mammals, swim from ice patch to ice patch looking for seals, their primary source of food, and use their foot-long paws and thick fur coats, which withstand temperatures of minus 35 degrees, for protection from the Arctic climate. However, due to the warmer temperatures, there is more open water in Churchill, and many of the cubs are drowning, being unable to swim the full distance between the ice platforms.

While the audience passed around a casting of a polar bear skull, as well as a few bear claws and a sample of their thick, white fur, Vanderwerf offered many examples of what communities can do to reverse the climate shift.

The Bear Minimums Campaign, an idea created by the Buffalo Zoo, is a monthly challenge in which individuals can pledge what they will do to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

Placing weatherstripping on windows and doors during the winter months, replacing the filters in furnaces each year, and purchasing low-flow shower heads and compact fluorescent light bulbs are just a few of the things a community can do to save on harmful emissions, Vanderwerf said.

“Turning your thermostat down by just 2 degrees a month will save 167 pounds of carbon dioxide,” she said.

Other initiatives the zoo is taking to reverse climate change include programs such as “Acres for the Atmosphere,” where zookeepers will plant trees on one acre of land, reducing the carbon footprint by 1.5 metric tons. “Bundle Up for Polar Bears,” a school-based campaign, will ask districts in the area to lower their thermostats by 2 degrees on Tuesday, March 1, and have their students wear hats and “hoodies.”

More than 70 people attended the lecture, many of whom were left with a sense of social obligation.

Barbara Miller, a Kenmore resident, a member of the church and huge animal lover, said she was touched by the message.

“The ice is shrinking so rapidly,” Miller said. “It really concerns me that it’s going that fast. I plan on lowering my thermostat by 2 degrees.”

Marion Benner of Tonawanda said she now understands climate change better and the simple things people can do and should be encouraged to do.

For more information on how climate change is affecting polar bear populations or to schedule a presentation, contact Vanderwerf at the Buffalo Zoo, 995-6138.

Return to top