This is an opinion piece written by Geoff York of the World Wildlife Fund for Mother Nature Network.


The Arctic is one of those magical places on Earth, a far off, distant land that many people never have the pleasure of experiencing. But to polar bears and local indigenous peoples, it’s their home. Each depends on this fragile ecosystem for life.


I say fragile because of the dire threats the Arctic is currently facing. Climate change — caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere — is having a profound impact on the region. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. The best indicator of this trend is the diminishing Arctic sea ice. Recent data from organizations including the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center shows that 2011 saw the lowest recorded volume of Arctic sea ice. The summer sea ice coverage is vanishing at a rate of 11 percent a decade.


In my more than 20 years as a biologist studying the Arctic, I’ve seen the sea ice changes first-hand. These changes are having a direct impact on the health and well-being of Arctic animals and people. Polar bears, a species near and dear to my heart, are greatly threatened. They now have less time on the ice to hunt and build up their fat stores, forcing them to spend more time fasting on land. I co-authored a recent study that shows that sea ice loss is causing polar bears in some regions to swim longer distances to find stable ice or to reach land, creating greater risk to their health. Put simply, if there is no ice, there will be no polar bears.


Geoff York with polar bear cubWhen I started studying the region with the U.S. Geological Survey 14 years ago, we had two field seasons — one in the fall, one in the spring. As the years went on, we had to abandon our fall field season due to late-forming sea ice and ended up focusing all of our efforts on the springtime. Climate change is not only forcing polar bears to change their behaviors, but humans as well. Indigenous peoples who use the sea ice as a highway are becoming more concerned about their safety, as previously dependable routes across the ice have become dangerously unpredictable.


Today I work at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s largest conservation organization. Climate change is a pressing issue for us, as it greatly affects the places and species at the core of our 50-year-old mission. We’re involved in a host of initiatives to mitigate humankind’s impact on the climate, from working with businesses to set and implement ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, to lobbying governments around the world to enact policies that will reduce global warming trends.


We’re also focused on the other side of the equation — adaptation. Our most recent example, and largest partner marketing campaign to date, was launched in October with The Coca-Cola Company called Arctic Home. Together with our partner of more than four years, we’re building awareness and raising funds for a 500,000-square-mile project spanning Canada and Greenland. We call it The Last Ice Area project, as it’s the region where scientists predict sea ice will persist the longest into the future.


This project will ultimately take at least $10 million and about five years to complete, but with the help of Coke and donations from Arctic Home, we’re well on our way. The idea is to work with the local Inuit communities, governments and other local partners to develop a plan to manage this region in a sustainable way — that is, in a way that assures any development does not threaten the ecosystems that its local inhabitants rely upon.


Sometimes it’s hard to fathom that the actions we take, regardless of where we live, are unintentionally affecting the precious landscape of the Arctic. Through Arctic Home, and other campaigns, we want to help people to understand their impacts on the Arctic, but also to give them an opportunity to soften those impacts. The harm we do is unintentional, but we can choose to be part of the solution.


Geoff York has been the head of Arctic Species Conservation for the WWF Global Arctic Program since 2008. A biologist by trade, Geoff provides worldwide leadership for WWF on polar bears and Arctic species, as well as oversight, development and implementation of WWF’s polar bear conservation strategy.