San Diego Zoo Scientist Studies Arctic Polar Bears - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

San Diego Zoo Scientist Studies Arctic Polar Bears

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They've become a symbol of the movement to halt global climate change. Polar bear populations are dropping around the world. A scientist with the San Diego Zoo is on a mission to figure out what can be done to save this unique species.

San Diego Zoo Senior Animal Keeper Joanne Simerson is on the tundra monitoring polar bears. The fight they face: diminishing ice and loss of habitat. She spoke to us all the way from Hudson Bay, Churchill Manitoba.

"It's really remarkable to be out here when the bears are walking through this area. They're very curious about things. They often come right up to the buggies. It's not unusual for a bear to climb right up to put their feet right on the buggy. It's pretty intense to be able to stare eye to eye at a wild polar bear," Simerson said.

They demand attention not just because of their beauty and size, but because their livelihood is at stake. Right now there are about 25,000 polar bears living in the arctic, but the USGS predicts most of them will disappear in the next 50 years because of one reason.

"The greatest threat right now to polar bears is global warming. Polar bears rely on sea ice and as the sea ice declines, that means that the polar bears will also decline. Scientists say if current warming trends continue in the arctic, two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by 2050.

"The polar bear relies entirely on it's main food source of the ring seal. The ring seal uses the sea ice to birth to rest, to live on. So as that ice reduces, so does the amount of food the polar bear can get. Most importantly, the access that the bear has - they do not swim in the water for seals, it's leaning on the ice and using it as their hunting platform," Simerson said.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced in May of this year that it is listing the polar bear as a threatened species. Conservation groups were upset that the bears weren't listed as endangered. They accused the government of avoiding that title, because under the Endangered Species Act, lawmakers could be required to pass stricter laws to combat global warming and protect polar bears.

Back on the tundra, Joanne and her team are studying how polar bears react to their environment.

"Some of the research projects that we're doing have to do more with finding out more about polar bears in particular. We are now recording what you call sound harvesting here out in the tundra. We have microphones set up and any type of communication that we can record between the bears we're doing so that we learn a little bit more about the communication and how the industry moving into the arctic might impact them.

You may be wondering if there is anything you can do to help polar bears increase their chances of survival.

"What needs to happen now is a collaboration between everyone involved in this to find out what's best to sustain our polar bear populations.
"It may seem like a monumental task that we can't do anything to change this, but we can. It's simple things: turn off light switches, reduce how often you're driving, walk when you can. Any little bit of conservation helps, planting trees. Anything you can do to reduce your footprint will help change this world back to where it needs to be and back in balance.
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