Even after half a lifetime studying polar bears in some of Earth's least hospitable climates, Andrew Derocher still gets nervous trying to tag a 1,000-pound bear on a frozen slab of ice in the open water.

"[The bears] are not worried about being out there, but it’s just not good enough for us," he says.

Photo by Andrew Derocher.


To human researchers, sea ice may be a rickety death trap, but to polar bears, it's a little like a cross between a superhighway, a forest, and an old memory-foam mattress. It's the surface over which they travel, where they hunt, and occasionally, where they mate.

And increasingly, Derocher warns, there is less of it to go around:

"We can quibble amongst ourselves as scientists, but the overwhelming scientific consensus is absolutely clear: Polar bears are in trouble."

The ice that supports polar bear populations from Canada to Alaska to Russia to Norway is disappearing — rapidly.

Across the Arctic, the trouble signs are difficult to miss. The bears are getting smaller, they're reproducing less frequently, and very young and very old bears are dying at higher rates.

For the past two weeks, Derocher has been tweeting a series of alarming maps and images that illustrate what polar bears are up against.

Like this one that shows in dark red how much sea ice is missing:

And this one that shows the decline of sea ice coverage:

And this one that shows the decreasing number of days with sea ice per year:

Derocher and his colleagues at the University of Alberta use satellite radios to track the bears' movements.

Since the early 1980s, Derocher has studied thousands of bears over thousands of miles. Some of the bears he tracks today are the great-great-grandchildren of the bears he began his career working with.

By monitoring when the bears walk onto the ice and when they return to shore, they can estimate the number of "ice-free" days the bears will see that year. 180 "ice-free" days is considered a danger zone for the species.

"Once we get beyond about 210 days, we probably no longer have sufficient ice to maintain a viable population," Derocher explains.

In Canada's Western Hudson Bay, the no-ice period is hovering around 150-160 days — but, thanks to climate change, that number is jumping up by an average of three to six weeks per decade.

A few extra weeks without access to the ice can mean the difference between life and death for animals that burn up to two pounds of energy every day they're on land.

Less sea ice means the bears have to travel more, which means they have to kill more seals while they can. Since most of their hunting is done on the ice, that window becomes shorter the later the seas freeze — creating a conundrum wherein the bears have less time in which they're forced to hunt more efficiently and productively.

Derocher working on the ice. Photo by Andrew Derocher.

If they fail to hunt enough, their body fat stores won't last the length of the ice-free season. With lower body fat stored, female bears stop producing milk earlier, leading to higher cub mortality.

Derocher's prognosis for the arctic ambassador species is dire.

Within the next few decades, he estimates, there will be significantly fewer polar bears. By the end of the 21st century, there may be such a reduction in the species' range that future populations may or may not be viable.

"Every time we look at a new study, there’s pretty much no good news for polar bears," he says.

With current planetary warming trends, Derocher fears the decline is not reversible in the short term.

Long term, saving the species might mean making some sacrifices — financial, political, or otherwise.

"In our own house, we had to replace some windows, and we opted to pay the extra money for triple pane to save on energy," he says.

Any U.S. push to return to coal, he fears, would be a disaster for the species, although he does see some cause for optimism in recent business efforts to combat climate change.

Ultimately, he believes, polar bear fans simply need to understand what's going on if the species is going to continue surviving against heavy odds.

Photo by Andrew Derocher.

"There’s nothing in the scientific literature that supports anything but grave concern," he says.

The first step toward getting the bears back on track, he maintains, is getting the public to care about conserving sea ice.

The second is people "voting with their wallet" and rewarding companies that are reducing their carbon footprint.

The third is supporting politicians like those in his home province of Alberta who favor policies like higher carbon taxes — though he believes most could be doing much more.

That might be the species' best hope.

"It’s got to change," Derocher insists. "The way we live on this planet has got to change."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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