Polar bear scientist Steve Amstrup was stunned when he learned he had won the 2012 Indianapolis Prize, the Nobel Prize of conservation.
"You could have bowled me over with a feather," he said.
The award from the Indianapolis Zoo—and the $100,000 that goes with it—is given every other year to a person who has made extraordinary contributions to the conservation of a single animal species or multiple species.
No one has done more to save polar bears than Amstrup, who has been studying the animals and their habitat since 1980. He has called attention to their plight and the grim future they face due to the disappearance of Arctic ice caused by climate change. He projects that two-thirds of the world's polar bear population could disappear by midcentury unless climate change is slowed, and extinct by the end of the century.
In 2007, he led an international team of researchers to the Arctic. The group's reports led to the 2008 listing of polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The bears are the first and only species to be listed as endangered because of threats posed by global warming.
Amstrup, now chief scientist at Polar Bears International is not only the most prominent defender of the polar bear, he's become one of the world's most cogent and forceful speakers on climate change. InsideClimate News caught up with him via email at his home in Kettle Falls, Wa., shortly after he was announced winner of the zoo prize.
ICN: What have you learned from your many years with the bears that you didn't expect to learn?
Amstrup: Early on, I learned how mobile they are, [that] they have the largest home ranges of all four-legged animals. I also learned that many of them have (or at least used to have) their cubs in dens constructed on drifting pack ice. These maternal females would be transported in the blind hundreds of kilometers. They would emerge with new tiny cubs and know exactly how to come back home.
Later I realized just how vulnerable they are to a pack ice environment that was literally transformed during my research career. I never would or could have projected I would see that magnitude of change in my working lifetime.
ICN: Your efforts helped put the polar bear on the endangered species list. That milestone must have been a long time coming. Did you always have faith that it would eventually happen?
Amstrup: I have never had a goal of listing bears. My goal was only to understand their ecology and describe their present and future welfare. The understanding I gained from objective scientific inquiry led to the classification. But, the legal designation as threatened is not nearly as important as the scientific realization that the future of polar bears is in jeopardy if we humans do not change our ways.
ICN: Other than stopping or at least slowing climate change, what other measures must be taken to save the polar bear?
Amstrup: My work has shown clearly that without stopping greenhouse gas rise, no other management actions can make a difference. If, however, we mitigate GHG rise, on the ground management like establishing protective zones, etc. can help. The problem is that many have become fixated on the prospect of setting up refuges, establishing critical habitats, regulating hunting, etc. and those topics can become dangerous distractions from the real concern and the only thing that can really save polar bears.
If we allow ourselves to be distracted from the mission of reducing GHG emissions, we surely will become polar bear historians rather than polar bear conservationists.
ICN: Besides your effort to help save the polar bear and its habitat, you've been praised for your ability to make complex scientific concepts digestible to the general public. Did you come by this ability naturally?
Amstrup: I think one of my greatest strengths always has been recognizing what is important in a cast of problems or issues and being able to simply and elegantly explain and describe it. It was clear to me from my earliest days as a professional biologist that if I could not communicate what I knew to all audiences, it was of little value. So, this sort of communication always has been a focus, but it is not necessarily something I had to practice. That isn’t to say that I don't learn from my experiences, how to do it better!
ICN: What are some of the pitfalls that researchers and scientists tend to fall into when trying to explain science to the lay person?
Amstrup: To a scientist, the devil is always in the details and the questions are always about the uncertainties—how can we reduce our error bars or sharpen our projections. For the public and policymakers, however, the certainties are the main interest. And, in the current "sound bite" environment, we cannot (and do not have time to) get into the uncertainties if we are to leave the audience with what we know rather than what we don't know.
Global warming is perhaps the best case of this.