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Idea 2 - The rise or fall of the mighty and mystical polar bear

This project idea was contributed by Jeff Stanfield

Exam Board Components that this project links with
AQA A Unit 1, Section A: Challenge of Weather and Climate
Unit 1, Section B: Ice on the Land
AQA B Unit 2, Section B: The Challenge of Extreme Environments
OCR A Unit A671: Extreme Environments
OCR B Theme 4: Economic development
Edexcel A Unit 1, Section A: General Skills
Unit 1, Section B: Challenges for the Planet
Edexcel B Unit 1, Section A: Climate and change
Unit 1, Section C: Extreme Climates
WJEC B Theme 2: People and the Natural World Interactions

Setting the Scene

Many parts of the Arctic are considered to be the kingdom of the polar bear.

In an article in USA Today (13.03.08) entitled 'Polar bears caught in a heated eco-debate', Oren Dorell outlines the Inuits' fight to have the polar bear removed from the at risk list. A brief summary follows.

The Inuits of Alaska and Canada are concerned that if polar bears were to be designated as an endangered species their culture and livelihoods would be very seriously threatened. If they were to be listed as an endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service it would be the first time that global warming was officially noted as the main threat to a species.

Polar Bear, by Alan Wilson Licenced under a <a href=http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ target=blank>Creative Commons</a> licence. Polar Bear, by Alan Wilson Licenced under a Creative Commons licence.

Inuit guide Jamie Kablutsiak says of the petition, 'It would have a really big effect on us Inuit, because we go by dog team to traditionally hunt polar bears." And as for the polar bears themselves, 'I don't think they're decreasing because there's usually lots, even in summer time.'

The Inuit Circumpolar Council represents native communities in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia. Dorell writes, 'Although they say sea ice has melted, members of the Inuit Circumpolar Council seek more evidence that climate change would seriously harm the bears, and some scientists question the accuracy of the most dire predictions of a warming climate in the future.' Environmentalists, for their part, claim that the bears need to be protected now if they are to survive future warmer climates.

Polar Bear, by Alan Wilson Licenced under a <a href=http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ target=blank>Creative Commons</a> licence. Polar Bear, by Alan Wilson Licenced under a Creative Commons licence.

Here then, we have a very difficult and complex environmental problem which provides a good starter scenario for geographical investigation. Which school of thought is right and which is wrong? Is the polar bear population growing or declining? If numbers are decreasing, then why? Are the numbers a barometer of human impact on the planet? Are reported numbers kept artificially low by governments to support the global warming lobby and to trigger green taxation? The list of investigative questions is endless.

This provides the catalyst for challenging and exciting geographical detection work. This work can easily be linked securely to many components of the new GCSE specifications, for example:

Key Geography Objectives

  • To investigate the key characteristics of tundra / polar biomes
  • To analyse and explain key physical and human processes which are impacting on these biomes
  • To describe and explain the distribution of polar bear populations
  • To analyse and synthesise information on the impact of environmental change on polar bear populations.

Key ICT Objectives

  • Website investigation
  • Collection, manipulation and communication of geographical information
  • Developing electronic maps.

Running this activity

Starter activity - introduce the world of the polar bear via Power Point presentations, film snippets, photographic investigation, satellite images, books, or a newspaper article such as that by Oren Dorell disucssed above. You may wish to take time to use different websites (such as those listed below) to investigate or reinforce the key characteristics of the tundra / polar biomes.

After setting the scene regarding the differing points of view about the number of polar bears and their geographical distribution, students will examine the causes, consequences and responses to the concerns about these creatures. Students work individually, in pairs, or in detective teams to investigate these differing points of view and the implications for the future. To do so, use can be made of the websites listed below.

Students to work towards the creation of a detailed report for the Inuit Circumpolar Council. This task can be approached progressively, depending on the students' familiarity with ICT, in the following manner:

For those beginning with ICT - Students given reports downloaded from websites (alongside their own independent web browsing) to inform their desk top published development of a comparative summary of differing points of view.

More Advanced - use of computer suites for systematic and rigorous research; creation of Power Point presentations related to the polar bear 'issue' to be used at a meeting to give information to the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Advanced - use of on line or purchased mapping packages by the students to create a GIS based on the distribution of polar bear and the pressures enacting upon them.

Students could also create an animated film to be forwarded for review by the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Final review of findings, with analysis of changes to the tundra and polar biomes and the causes and consequences of these changes both in the present and in the future.

Website Links

Distribution of Polar Bears Distribution of Polar Bears

Maps and information regarding polar bear distributions can be obtained from a range of sites through web searches. The distribution map shown to the right, for example, is from Wikipedia and can be reproduced freely.

You might also try this map of polar bear populations from the website of GRID-Arendal, official collaborating centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Or try the website of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more detailed distributions for specific Arctic locations.

For more about polar bears:

Polar Bears International
BBC Science & Nature - Polar Bears
World Wildlife Fund
USA Today Polar Bear photo gallery

Or do an internet search for 'Polar Bears' for more links!

For more about Climate Change:

Defra - Information about climate change and what is being done to reduce the risks both in the UK and internationally.
Guardian online - A section of The Guardian website that collects together articles about this issue.
BBC - Starting point for news items and discussions on the topic of climate change.
Weathevane - U.S. site providing access to research on the environmental and economic aspects of climate change.
U.S. Global Change Research Information Office - Disseminates scientific research on global change.
Climate Ark - Blog that features links to articles about climate change.

This is of course only a taster of what is out there. Search for 'Climate Change' in your search engine to find many more links!

A selection of articles that may be useful:

'Alaska sues over listing polar bear as threatened' (International Herald Tribune)
'The Great Polar Bear Population Puzzle' (Human Events)
'Polar Bear Population Predicted To Dwindle With Retreating Ice' (Science Daily)
'Polar bears 'thriving as the Arctic warms up'' (Telegraph online)

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