Climate change is altering the Arctic landscape, posing a long-term risk to the polar bears that roam the sea ice. A particularly far-sighted partnership between the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Coca-Cola aims to establish safe havens for the massive marine mammals.

 

The Arctic Home campaign will help raise awareness and money for research and outreach necessary to protect the polar bear's habitat.

 

Global warming is melting the sea ice where polar bears hunt for seals. Sea ice is now the thinnest it has ever been in recorded history, according to the WWF, and the amount of surface area in 2011 matches the record low level of 2007. Less ice means more open water, forcing polar bears to swim longer distances, according to a WWF study. This puts cubs at risk of exhaustion and drowning when they search for stable ice on which to live and hunt. Less ice also means fewer haul out spots for walruses and seals, leading to high pup mortality rates at crowded beaches.

 

The edge of the sea ice is advancing north, and the WWF project aims to study and preserve areas where the edges will be a generation from now.

 

“This is a 30-year horizon,” says Clive Tesar of the WWF Global Arctic Program. “We’d rather prevent a problem than chase after it.”

 

The WWF hopes to work with local indigenous people and governments to create conservation plans across “The Last Ice Area” — a 500,000-square-mile area across Canada and Greenland where scientists believe the sea ice may persist longer than anywhere else.

 

It’s a vast expanse rarely visited by researchers, Tesar says, adding, “We know we don’t know a lot.”

 

Tesar says the WWF plans to begin research early next summer to develop baseline information about the ecology of the region. In addition to the science, the program includes outreach and education. WWF hopes to hold meetings with leaders of local communities in January and May.

 

Coca-Cola, which has featured polar bears in holiday advertising since 1922, is providing financing for the project by contributing $2 million to WWF over the next five years and matching up to $1 million in donations made by the public through March 15, 2012. In November, Coke turned its iconic red cans white in celebration of the polar bear. And early this month, Coca-Cola will introduce a second limited-edition Arctic Home can, which features the same polar bears with a red background. These limited-edition Arctic Home cans are helping raise awareness and funds to protect the polar bear's home. Donations can be made through ArcticHome.com or by texting the package code to 357357 to donate $1 to WWF.

 

"We want to help the polar bear — a beloved Coca-Cola icon since 1922 — by helping conserve its Arctic habitat," said Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company. "That's why we're using one of our greatest assets — our flagship brand, Coca-Cola — to raise awareness for this important cause. And by partnering with WWF, we can truly make a positive difference for these majestic animals."

 

While the polar bear “is obviously the star of the show,” Tesar says, much more is at risk as the ice retreats. The bears — as top predators — serve as important indicators of ecological health.

 

“As the polar bear goes,” Tesar says, “so goes the ecosystem.”

 

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