May 11, 2009 - Vikings or Polar Bears?

Polar bears are amazing animals, superficially like our familiar land based brown bears but adapted to living on ice floes and pursuing their prey through the water. Lately there’s been a lot of hand-wringing over how they are losing their familiar habitat as the seas warm and the Arctic sea ice melts. The Obama administration recently stepped back from using its authority to declare the Endangered Species Act as the appropriate tool to address climate change and its impacts on specific species, but that hasn’t stopped the handwringing. Polar bears make a cute and cuddly looking poster child for victims of climate change.

Inconveniently for global warming alarmists, the “bear population has more than doubled since the 1960’s,” according to a May 9, 2009 Associated Press report. The report cites a coming crisis based on a projected loss of Arctic sea ice, currently a key part of the polar bear’s habitat. But is it really the polar bear’s preferred habitat?

During the years 800-1200, Greenland was settled by the Vikings. The Vikings developed a thriving agricultural community on the open plains, before cooler temperatures returned with the Little Ice Age. The Vikings failed to adapt, and the settlements were abandoned. The polar bears clearly adapted quite well to the cooler temperatures and advancing sea ice. My question – what was the polar bear’s preferred habitat during the 400 years of the Medieval Warming period? It couldn’t have been the sea ice - if the ice had retreated far enough to allow European style farming in Greenland, then the conditions in the Arctic must have been different. Clearly the polar bears survived and thrived.

Polar bears should be the poster child for successful adaptation, surviving both global warming and global cooling. We can choose to fight climate change like the Vikings of Greenland or adapt to climate change like the polar bears. The polar bears were clearly more successful.