Indianapolis Prize 2012: Climate change drives polar bear scientist Steven C. Amstrup
Steve C. Amstrup's research on global warming and polar bears helped put the animals on the threatened list. / Photo provided by Matt Mays
Clutching his remote control, Steven C. Amstrup watches the news of killer tornadoes, destructive hurricanes, hot and cold temperature extremes -- and wishes he could put words into the mouths of those reporters and weather forecasters.
"They should add on the end of every one of these stories . . . 'these sorts of events will continue to increase in number and severity as the world continues to warm,' " Amstrup said from his home in Kettle Falls, Wash.
"Adding that to the broadcast might begin to get people's attention."
More attention to global warming's impact on weather extremes can lead to more action. More action can lead to real solutions.
And solutions could save Amstrup's beloved polar bears -- the focus of his work, the passion of his life and the reason he is being named today winner of the 2012 Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation.
The $100,000 award, presented by the Indianapolis Zoo every other year and funded by the Lilly Foundation, is given to the nation's top scientists and researchers who advance the cause of animal conservation.
Five years ago, Amstrup led an international team of researchers to look at global warming and how it might affect polar bears, producing enough evidence to place the animals on the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
That was a significant milestone as polar bears became the first -- and only species to date -- to be listed solely on the basis of the threat of global warming.
Today, as chief scientist for Polar Bears International, the 62-year-old Amstrup no longer spends long days researching bears in brutal temperatures or facing the wrath of baby cubs, which he describes as "chainsaws wrapped in fur."
Instead, his passion has shifted to educating people -- from average Joes to trained weather forecasters to even some scientists -- about the threat of global warming and how best to change the perception of the problem.
"Across the board, people have not done a very good job of recognizing this threat," he said. "People can't really appreciate climate.
"Whether it's the general public, policy makers or the captains of industry, their appreciation of climate is what they get when they step out the front door. It's hard to get them to recognize that what they are experiencing is not climate but weather."
In other words, you can't write off global warming just because of a snowy winter. By the same token, he adds, it is not proper for anyone to use a hot, dry summer to defend global warming.
There are plenty of champions of global warming. What sets Amstrup apart?
In addition to working with the public and zoos around the nation, Amstrup has taken up the task of training fellow researchers to be clearer in their writing and less wavering when it comes to their research.
"As scientists, we tend to lead our reports with our uncertainties. We are conservative about what we are willing to say," Amstrup said. "But that can lead to too-specific and too-narrow conclusions about the threat of global warming. That needs to be broadened out. We need to keep the big picture in mind and make a statement about it."
And what is that statement?
"If we don't mitigate greenhouse gas rise, all the polar bears will ultimately disappear," he said. "We will no longer be polar bear researchers. We'll be polar bear historians."
Robert Buchanan, chief executive of Polar Bears International, said Amstrup is an example of what differentiates a good scientist from a great one.
"It's more than just research; it's an ability to write," he said. "Steve's ability to communicate his message is just outstanding."
Polar Bears International works with more than 70 facilities, including the Indianapolis Zoo, to educate the masses. While some bear populations in remote, arctic locations have rebounded after hunting rules were put into place in the 1970s, the numbers on the southern fringes of the globe, where the seas are getting warmer, are not.
Polar bears in these regions are finding it more difficult to sustain themselves, much less procreate. And change in global behavior is not likely to be a top-down solution, but rather a bottom-up success story.
Buchanan says he has seen it done before.
"When I was in my early 20s, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) proved people can change. It was not socially acceptable any more to drink and drive. People can change, and change can rather rapidly occur when it needs to."
A child inspired
Amstrup grew up in Fargo, N.D., reading Field & Stream magazine and watching Marlin Perkins and his show "Wild Kingdom," influences that helped form his opinion and point him north toward the land of ice.
"Bears have had my imagination since I was a little kid," Amstrup said. "I was one of those kids who always wanted to go out in the woods and study bears."
His passion led him to the University of Washington, where he studied wildlife. He got his first taste of outdoor field work by studying black bears before taking a research job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studying a variety of animals. In 1980, he moved to Alaska to take over polar bear research.
Early in his career, Amstrup solved the mystery of where Alaskan polar bears go to give birth to their young -- on drifting ice floes, which are susceptible to rising temperatures, a little tidbit that helped the cause of getting the bears listed as endangered.
It was one of the many things he would learn and then use to predict in 2007 that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by midcentury, and all of them by the end of the century, if behaviors are not changed and greenhouse gas emissions not lowered.
Michael Crowther, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo, said one of the things he admires most about Amstrup is his willingness to actually stop what he loved to do in the wild.
"Steve is a classic case . . . a pure researcher who can no longer afford the luxury of doing what he loves. Instead, he says, 'I have to do what is important,' converting from science focus to outreach focus," Crowther said.
"He understands we need to engage an audience. Once we engage them, we can enlighten them, teach them something they did not know and, finally, we can empower them."
The conservation movement can send a million scientists into the world, Crowther said, "but unless we engage the public, the efforts are going to be futile."
Amstrup is working on an international monitoring plan for polar bears, the first time a group of scientists will be working together to write reports that are specific to each nation but with a common way of counting and monitoring bear populations -- to counter the "naysayers" who use conflicting reports to push their views.
And certainly, some of that $100,000 is likely to help that cause.
But the unique thing about this award is that there are no strings attached.
Amstrup could buy himself a new car if he wants.
Oh, wait . . .
"We will certainly be donating some of the money to causes we think are important, but we also desperately need a more economical car," said Amstrup, who lives in the town of 1,600 with his wife, Virginia.
"When we lived in Anchorage, we had a pickup truck, but we mostly rode our bike to work because we lived downtown. But here in this rural area, in order to get to any place, we have to drive. It's 10 miles to the grocery store.
"I guess you can say we plan to make our own personal statement with that smaller car. So we can do our part."
About the Prize
Background: Established in 2004 with a $1 million gift from the Lilly Foundation. Initiated by the Indianapolis Zoo as part of its conservation efforts.
Process: A jury of leading scientists and conservationists nominate and name finalists and then choose a winner.
Prize: The Lilly Medal and $100,000. The prize is awarded every two years.
More here: http://www.indystar.com/article/20120614/NEWS/206140358/Climate-change-drives-polar-bear-scientist-Steven-C-Amstrup