Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Lessons From the Arctic

Life in the tundra teaches high school students important lessons about polar bear conservation and climate change.

by Don Moore and Josue Cardenas

Polar bears are magnificent ice-dwelling mammals, strikingly beautiful in their large size and white fur. They are uniquely adapted to living on sea ice, which they use as a platform to hunt seals, for seasonal travel and resting, and to find mates, breed, and house their cubs.

The polar bear is now listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Department of Interior, as of last May. It has become the international poster child for climate change action— for good reason: The polar bear population is declining due to its rapidly disappearing sea ice habitat. Although some people still question whether or not climate change is caused by human actions, the majority of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said that humans are contributing to the problem. In light of the need for action, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA ) and Polar Bears International (PBI) partnered to declare 2008 the “Year of the Polar Bear.” Sea ice has declined notably in just the last five years, and Manhattan-sized chunks of Arctic ice floated out of the Arctic Ocean last year. But it’s not just the ice that’s shrinking—so is the time for solutions. A recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters found that melting of Arctic Sea ice has reached the point of no return.

Polar bear roaming Arctic
Polar bears depend on dwindling Arctic sea ice for survival. (Don Moore/NZP)

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and other organizations partnering with PBI have raised public awareness about the problems that polar bears are facing in a changing Arctic. The National Zoo’s associate director for animal care, Don Moore, has participated in the PBI educational outreach program for more than ten years, teaching others around the world about what can be done to help save polar bears.

Moore has helped to create “Arctic Ambassador” centers in zoos, and to establish modern standards of polar bear management in those zoos. The National Zoo and others provide student ambassadors for PBI’s “Adventure Learning Program” on board the Tundra Buggy Lodge in Canada.

Polar bears migrate through the Churchill, Manitoba, area each fall. They have used this route for generations to move from the Canadian taiga ecosystem, where the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population lives during the ice-free summer period, to the Hudson Bay itself as it ices up in the winter.

For several months each year, adult polar bears travel far out on the bay ice to stalk and catch seals. A mother polar bear’s torpedo-shaped head fits nicely into seal dens in snow drifts, and bear cubs grow quickly on the mother’s rich milk and delicious seal fat. As the amount of ice decreases due to global warming, polar bears have fewer icy hunting platforms, so they lose weight and have a reduced ability to raise cubs. “Over the last ten years, I’ve witnessed first-hand how the landscape there has changed from ice and snow to just grass all around,” says Moore. “It’s visible evidence of the pressing need for solutions. That’s why it’s so great that we have young people helping us take action.”

The students in the Arctic Ambassador program see and learn about polar bears and their habitat. They are coached by experts in how to teach others about global warming and polar conservation. This year’s National Zoo Arctic Ambassador, Josue Cardenas, 17, was mentored in polar science by Moore and members of the Zoo’s education staff, including Debra Hanibal and Sonja Sugerman. Josue joined other students and PBI’s team of leadership trainers on the Tundra Buggy Lodge in October 2008.

Chilling With the Polar Bears

Like many teenagers, Josue Saul Cardenas has a hard time getting up for school. But before dawn on the morning of his trip to the Arctic, he was wide awake. In fact, he stayed up all night in anticipation of his trip to polar bear country on a stretch of frozen tundra in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Josue’s journey to this wilderness started in warmer surroundings—specifically, the Amazonia exhibit at the National Zoo, where he served as a volunteer last summer.

Josue Cardenas and abandoned polar bear den

High school senior Josue Cardenas visits an abandoned polar bear den in the Arctic. (BJ Kirschhoffer/PBI)

A senior at Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy, in Washington, D.C., Josue has a strong interest in environmental issues and participates in his school’s green club. Because of this interest, the Zoo chose to help send Josue to join PBI’s Adventure Learning Program, sponsored by an anonymous donor to FONZ as well as PBI. He and a group of other high school students experienced an eye-opening stay in the tundra as they learned about climate change, arctic wildlife, and saw polar bears during their fall migration.

For a week in October, the students lived and studied aboard a series of “tundra buggies”—converted school buses elevated on massive tires that are outfitted with bunk beds or classrooms. During their visit, they explored their surroundings, photographed wildlife, and learned from local people and experts in the field.

During his adventure, Josue recorded his thoughts in a blog for PBI, which is excerpted here:

Friday, October 10, 2008

I was so excited about flying to Canada that the night before my arrival, I could not go to sleep. When I arrived in Canada, I met my fellow PBI Ambassadors. Literally only two of us were dudes.

The night of my arrival there was a slideshow of photos by Robert Taylor, a photographer and friend of PBI. Taylor’s photographs of polar bears made me appreciate the art of capturing nature shots.

From a tundra buggy I took pictures of a mother polar bear with her two cubs. It was truly amazing how curious the cubs were. One of the cubs was so curious that it tried to climb the buggy.

Tundra buggy
Tundra buggies serve as classrooms and housing for students studying life in the Arctic. (BJ Kirschhoffer/PBI)

Riding across the tundra in Churchill was quite an interesting experience. We drove over dirt roads, making it difficult for passengers to keep their balance; the standing passengers were stumbling back and forth continuously.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Today I was awakened by Robert Buchanan, the president of PBI, singing, “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day.” And it really was. The PBI Ambassadors and I started working on our presentation about the impacts of global warming in the Arctic. While I was discussing the presentation with my colleagues, an Arctic hare ran by the window. We all dropped what we were doing and ran to the windows to take photos of it. The hare was so beautiful in how it navigated its environment. It seemed curious about the tundra buggy, running around it a few times.

Later, I took photos of a polar bear. There was a polar bear that was so curious that he started eating trash he found in the tundra. It upset me how a person could leave garbage without thinking about the consequences.

In the afternoon, a group gave a presentation about the impacts of climate change on the plants and animals of the north and also about the people who live and work in the Arctic. The presentation was fun and the group did a good job of showing the impact of global warming on the Arctic. They showed us how the government and corporations choose to ignore these impacts.

Students learning about Arctic
Josue and fellow students learn about Arctic wildlife and conservation during their tundra trip. (BJ Kirschhoffer/PBI)

Tonight, Robert Buchanan talked to us about the powerful polar bear. It was the first time I had seen a polar bear look so powerful in a photo. The way in which Robert spoke really motivated me and made me want to do more for polar bears.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Today we saw a polar bear outside the tundra buggy. I was surprised to see the bear so close. The bear was underneath the buggy and only about 60 cm below me. Polar bears are truly one of nature’s most beautiful creations.

I learned how a polar bear behaves in its natural environment. It is one of the most curious and playful animals. I learned from Julie Christie, an animal keeper at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, how they take care of polar bears in zoos and encourage their natural behaviors. [Note: The National Zoo does not exhibit polar bears due to a lack of an optimal habitat for them.]

Then Robert Buchanan showed a video featuring a 12-year-old girl [Severn Suzuki] who went to the United Nations to ask world leaders to do more to protect the earth against global warming. Her presentation was very inspiring to me. She was very passionate about protecting the earth, and you could hear that passion in her voice. Today has inspired me to do more to effect change in my community. If we all work together, we can change the whole world.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Last night we saw two polar bears fighting—it was like watching a live boxing match. They were so macho. It looked like they were fighting for territory.

Wrestling polar bears
Polar bears wrestle, an activity that sharpens their hunting skills (Don Moore/NZP)

Today I saw Churchill from the air. We were really high above it in a helicopter—the first time I had ever been in one. The colors of the land below were magnificent—the green trees, the blue water. It’s not what I expected Churchill to look like.

Today we each wrote poems and then read them out loud. Some made me laugh, others touched my heart. It will be a night that I’ll never forget. We did a presentation for the adults so we could show them how much they meant to us. They reacted with laughs and hugs. Today is the last night that we’ll be here, and I know I’m going to miss everyone very much. I think of them as my family.

About Polar Bears

  • Female polar bears weigh 350 to 550 pounds, while males weigh 775 to more than 1,500 pounds. They make our native
    black bears, at 150 (female) to 600 (male) pounds, seem petite.
  • Front feet can be 12 inches in diameter and are oar-like for swimming, with hair on the undersurface for gripping the
    ice, acting as “snowshoes” on snow and thin ice, and for thermal insulation.
  • Polar bears can outrun caribou over short distances. They can swim three to five miles per hour.
  • Polar bears have an acute sense of smell and have been known to sniff out food or mates from miles away.
  • Their diet includes ice-breeding pinnipeds, such as ringed seals, bearded seals, and walruses. Polar bears eat mostly the blubber of these animals.
  • “Play” is an activity bears do with other bears (or with bushes!) to help coordinate their reflexes, to establish relationships, and to help them learn skills like hunting and fighting.
  • The Inuit term for “bear” or “ice bear” is nanook.
  • Scientists believe a brown bear ancestor was at the beginning of the polar bear’s evolutionary tree about 200,000 years ago. The polar bear is the “youngest” of the eight bear species on Earth.