Climate Change in the Arctic: Is Bowdoin's Mascot Headed for a Meltdown?

by Douglas McInnis

Illustrations by John Bowdren

The polar bear has an interesting standing at Bowdoin - it is both athletic mascot and student body emblem, as well as being a symbol of real scholarly focus on the Arctic - but some say the bears could become extinct in this century, victims of global warming. Bowdoin faculty and alumni are studying the issues that could determine its future.

In a world of encroaching civilization and polluted oceans, the polar bear has survived. Its population, scattered through the Arctic, is little changed from the early years of the twentieth century when Robert E. Peary launched his conquest of the North Pole. Yet within this century, the polar bear could vanish from the wild, a victim of global warming.

Though the nearest wild polar bears are far from Bowdoin, their loss would be felt on a campus where the bear is the College's athletic mascot, and a symbol of Bowdoin's century-old tradition of Arctic exploration.

The polar bear has a venerable history at Bowdoin. The first bear (albeit stuffed) arrived at Bowdoin in 1918, a gift of Donald B. MacMillan, Class of 1898. MacMillan was a member of Peary's 1909 expedition and an arctic pioneer in his own right. In the 1920s and '30s, leashed polar bear cubs roamed the sidelines of Bowdoin football games. In the Great Depression, the Class of 1912 gave Bowdoin its great granite bear as a 25th reunion gift. That bear was periodically splashed with paint by rival fans during the football season. When that happened, partisans of Colby and Bates were the usual suspects.

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In the wild, though, the polar bear is a creature of the ice. Its paws are built for crossing ice and snow. Its fat insulates it from the cold, and it catches its prey from sea ice. Without the great frozen north, the bear cannot survive. But the Arctic is melting at an alarming rate. Global warming - the by-product of the fossil fuel age - is to blame, scientists say. The evidence is laid out in a massive new report, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, issued by 300 scientists, including Bowdoin anthropologist Anne Henshaw, the director of the Coastal Studies Institute.

Their four-year study found that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, curtailing the time that the sea ice remains frozen each year. That single change has begun to upend the complex food chain of the Arctic Ocean, where the polar bear is the top link.

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The polar bear has already survived multiple threats to its existence - hunting, oil drilling, and the build-up of manmade toxic chemicals and heavy metals in its fatty tissues.

So far, average winter temperatures have risen as much as 7 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the Arctic, and could rise another 13 degrees over the next 100 years. When Peary traversed the Arctic on the way to the Pole, he was uneasy when the temperature rose above minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, because the ice would begin to shift dangerously and he would run into patches of open water. Seawater is difficult to keep frozen because of its high salt content. Some climate models now suggest that, by century's end, nearly all of the Arctic Ocean could be open water in summer. If that had been true in Peary's day, he could have sailed to the Pole.

The chain of events that may doom the polar bear was already underway when Peary was born in 1856. By then, the United States had begun the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy. The Civil War, with its huge requirement for arms production, accelerated that shift. Two years after Peary's 1877 graduation from Bowdoin, Thomas Edison perfected the incandescent light, and three years later he built the first public power system to serve a small area of New York City. At the same time, John D. Rockefeller was creating the modern oil industry.

The automobile completed the transition to the fossil fuel economy. In 1913, just four years after Peary reached the pole, Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line for automobile production - a revolutionary step which slashed production costs and made the car affordable for the masses.

Bowdoin's Ties to Northern Exploration
Bowdoin's ties to northward exploration began in 1860 when Paul Chadbourne, professor of chemistry and natural history, rounded up students from Bowdoin and other eastern schools, loaded them aboard the schooner Nautilus, and sailed for Greenland. Chabourne wanted more science incorporated into the liberal arts curriculum, and the trip was a means to that end, said Genevieve LeMoine, curator of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin. At the same time, he hoped to observe a total solar eclipse, which was to have been visible from Greenland. Ultimately, the view was blocked by clouds, she said. Thirty-one years later, biology professor Leslie Lee took Bowdoin students up the coast of Labrador to collect scientific specimens and explore the Grand River (now named the Churchill River). By then, Robert E. Peary had been out of Bowdoin for more than a decade, and his first expedition to Northern Greenland took place the same year. Peary had gotten a taste for exploration in the early 1880s as a member of the Navy's Civil Engineers Corps, which probed Nicaragua for possible routes for a trans-ocean canal. The canal was eventually built across Panama. His future protégée, Donald B. MacMillan, was still several years away from attending Bowdoin. Today, Bowdoin maintains its northern ties in large part through the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center. The Museum, which began in the 1950s in a renovated room in the Searles Science Building, moved into Hubbard Hall in 1967. MacMillan, then 92, attended the Hubbard opening. The museum draws more than 14,000 visitors annually, and holds 52,000 items, including a number of preserved polar bears along with other examples of Arctic wildlife. The Arctic Studies Center was established in 1985. The College is also home to Arctic Anthropology, a leading scientific journal, which moved its offices to Bowdoin in 2000. Schooner Bowdoin 1924 Schooner Bowdoin in Refuge Harbor, 1924.

No one could have imagined then the influence that these developments would have on the Arctic, and by extension the polar bear. It is a creature ideally equipped for the frozen latitudes. Its short claws are well suited to grip the ice. The pads on its huge paws are covered with small growths called papillae, which form a sort of natural non-slip coating. The paws themselves are so large that they carry the bear's huge weight - up to 1,300 pounds for males - like snowshoes that distribute the weight and keep it from plunging through thin ice.

Four inches of fat insulate the bear against the cold, and its fur is made up of translucent hairs that transmit heat-giving solar radiation to the bear's skin. "The bears invented fiber optics," said Roy LaCasce '44, Professor of Physics Emeritus.

Not only is the bear built for the cold, but it relies on the Arctic ice to provide a sturdy platform from which to strike at seals as they surface for air through holes in the ice. Because of their high fat content, the seals are an energy-rich food. These calorie-dense meals bulk the bears up for long periods in summer when hunting opportunities are minimal.

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But global warming has brought about a potentially catastrophic change. Arctic ice now forms later in the fall and melts sooner in the spring - about two and a half weeks earlier than it melted three decades ago. That leaves the bear less time to build critical fat reserves for summer. Female bears now weigh 55 pounds less on average than they did in the 1970s. If the melting continues to accelerate, the bears may soon lose so much weight that they will be too malnourished to breed.

The polar bear has already survived multiple threats to its existence - hunting, oil drilling, and the build-up of manmade toxic chemicals and heavy metals in its fatty tissues. But with the shorter season to find food, the great carnivore is headed for a population crash, conservation groups say.

The loss of the bear would in turn impact the native Inuit, who depend on bear hunting to help fuel tribal economies. "It would be hard on the Inuit economically," said Henshaw, the director of Bowdoin's Coastal Studies Center. "Catastrophic, no, but significant, yes. It would hurt them more culturally. Hunting is part of who they are. It's hard to define what the loss of the bear would mean in economic terms alone."

Henshaw traveled repeatedly to the Arctic to record the Inuit's recollections of climate change - observations that are part of the new Arctic climate report. Their comments mirror the findings of scientific measurements:

"It is spring too soon," remarked Lukta Qiatsuk, an Inuit elder.

"I'm getting reports that the ice is very dangerous," said elder Namonai Ashoona, in an interview before his death. "Normally at this time of year, the ice isn't dangerous. But now it is unusable. All the inlets that would (normally) have ice in them do not."

It could be easy to ignore the plight of the bears and the Inuit people who hunt them. The Arctic is far removed from the lives of most Americans. But the warming Arctic isn't without impact on the rest of us. There are enormous quantities of freshwater locked up within the Arctic in glaciers and in the Greenland ice sheet - believed to be more than a mile thick in places. The ice sheet alone has enough frozen water to raise sea levels about 23 feet should all of it melt.

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Ironically, a few scientists are concerned that the large influx of fresh water into the northern Atlantic could trigger a new ice age. They believe the added fresh water could cause a disruption in the oceanic conveyer belt that carries cold water southward and brings warm water to the north. This belt helps to moderate temperatures in the northern hemisphere. Scientists have found similar disruptions in the geologic past.

In a climate study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense, some scientists theorized that the conveyer disruption could drop average temperatures by five degrees in North America and Asia, and six degrees in Europe, while raising average temperatures up to four degrees in Australia, South America, and Southern Africa. That, in turn, could lead to crop failures, shortages of fresh water, and more extreme weather, such as floods and droughts. It could also disrupt the energy supply chain, as sea ice and severe winter storms curtail shipping. "The duration of this event could be decades, centuries, or millennia, and it could begin this year or many years in the future," the report said.

So a warming Arctic may indeed impact us. "More than ever, people are starting to recognize that climate change in the Arctic has feedback further south," said Susan Kaplan, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Peary-McMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin. "We may think the Arctic is so removed, but we're absolutely linked to it every day."

Of course, these extreme events may never happen. "Some people have forecast these abrupt climate changes," said Aaron Donahoe '03, now studying atmospheric sciences in a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. "I think all the answers are just speculative at this point."

Arctic Tradition
Donald MacMillan, 1922 Donald MacMillan on his return from the schooner Bowdoin's maiden voyage in 1922 After Robert E. Peary's conquest of the North Pole, the focus of Arctic work began to shift from exploration to science. Peary's protégée, Donald B. MacMillan, was instrumental in propelling this movement. MacMillan made more than 30 expeditions over 46 years. While he charted new territory, he also did significant research, brought back thousands of films and photographs of the region, and composed a dictionary of the native Inukikut language. He also pioneered the use of cutting-edge technology in Arctic exploration, particularly the radio and the airplane. MacMillan also conceived the design of the schooner Bowdoin, which was specifically built for Arctic travel and research. MacMillan came up with the idea when his 1913 expedition to Greenland was stranded, and he had time to kill while awaiting rescue. The vessel was launched in 1921 from the Hodgdon Brothers Shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine. When MacMillan joined military service for World War II, he transferred the ship to the Navy for service. He made his last trip to the Arctic in 1954, some 56 years after obtaining his degree in geology from Bowdoin. Robert E. Peary and Donald B. MacMillan were athletes at Bowdoin before they tackled the rigors of Arctic exploration. Peary rowed for his class crew. He also composed the class ode, took an interest in taxidermy, and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. MacMillan played football, which by the end of the 19th century had become the premiere collegiate sport. The College's tradition of northern expedition was renewed in 1987 when the Kane Lodge Foundation funded an archaeological mission to Labrador. In recent years, students have joined faculty and staff on projects in Labrador, Baffin Island, Greenland, and Alaska. Courses related to the Arctic are offered through the departments of anthropology and geology.

"A new ice age would be one of the extreme views," said Greg Zielinkski, Maine's state climatologist and a research professor at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute. "The fact of the matter is that no one knows quite what will happen as the Arctic warms. The ultimate outcome of Arctic warming could be very complex. That's what makes climate change so exciting. The climate is a very dynamic system. If you could predict exactly what's going to happen, you could make a killing in the stock market."

Climate change has always had an impact on humanity. One million people perished in the Irish potato famine that came at the end of Europe's Little Ice Age, and many others fled Ireland for America to escape starvation. "Human history has often shifted course when the climate alters course," said Matthew Klingle, assistant professor of history and environmental science. "According to our understanding, the arrival of Asian peoples to the Americas occurred with the exposure of the Bering Land Bridge during the last glaciation. And domestication of crops came with the warming of the climate 13,000 to 15,000 years ago."

"The climate is a very complicated beast," said DeWitt John, director of Bowdoin's environmental studies program. "But the fact is that we only have one Earth and we're playing Russian roulette (with it). If you disrupt the climate, agriculture will be substantially different, to pick one example. If you're a Saskatchewan wheat farmer, you might think a bit of warming isn't so bad. But if you're a Kansas wheat farmer, you might be extremely distressed.

"We could see tropical diseases coming north. Dengue fever is one of them. You also have the possibility of extreme weather."

But humans are an adaptable bunch. They not only roll with the punches, they sometimes use them to their advantage. Klingle cites the early years of Maine's logging industry, which turned harsh winters into an asset. Loggers were able to drag cut timber across the snow, which offered less friction than bare ground. They piled the logs along the riverbanks, and waited for heavy spring runoff to float them to downstream saw mills.

While humans are adaptable, the highly-specialized polar bear is less so. The future may hold feast or famine for the polar bear. An ice age could save it; a warming planet could exterminate it from the wild. In either case, the die may be cast. "When you put up greenhouse gases, CO2 stays in the atmosphere for 200 years," said John. "You can't do anything about it quickly."

Sources for the story include Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, World Wildlife Fund 2002 report - "Polar Bears at Risk, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security" by GBN Global Business Network for the Department of Defense, Scientific American, Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center, the Bowdoin Orient, and Bowdoin News.

The illustrations in this article are interpretive and not meant to depict accurately the way a polar bear looks or would look in a future with limited food resources. We frequently depict polar bears doing things natural to students but not to them, such as reading books and riding bicycles, so this may not surprise our alumni readers, but since the article here is about real science and the real polar bears, we wanted to be sure not to mislead. The Editors.

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Here is a brief summary of some of the steps the College has taken to reduce its emission of CO2 gases, according to S. Catherine Longley '76, Bowdoin's senior vice-president for finance and administration and treasurer:

• Bowdoin is building a geothermal system to heat and cool the two new first-year dormitories being constructed on Coffin Street, which will house up to 160 first-year students in August, 2005.
• In 2003, the College switched from using No. 6 heating oil to more efficient, and cleaner burning No. 2 heating oil for its main heating plant.
• The first hybrid car has been purchased and the College may buy additional hybrid cars for its fleet.
• The College will be taking part in an experiment to heat one of its College Houses with a corn-deritative bio-fuel.
• The College is considering the purchase of a portion of its electricity from a proposed Maine wind power project.
• The College is seeking to have all new construction on campus certified under the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy Efficiency Design (LEED) standards.
• The College holds an annual month long conservation dorm competition to raise awareness among students about the importance of energy conservation. In 2004 the dorms reduced their electricity use by an average of 25%.