After a cold period of over 100,000 years, the climate began to gradually warm around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. Large sheets of ice up to two miles thick began to melt, heralding an end to the last ice age. 

Today, we are still in that warm interglacial period. Since that beginning of a warming climate period, plants and animals have been forced to adapt to the new conditions brought about by that warming. Unfortunately, many species of plants and animals were unable to adapt to a warming climate and are no longer with us. Other plants and animals are hanging on as relics of the past cooler conditions on algific slopes, which mimic the conditions found at the end of the last ice age. Today’s familiar plants and animals were able to adapt to the subtle changes brought on by a gradually warming climate. 

Two species that have been able to adapt to the changing conditions of the warming interglacial period are polar bears and monarch butterflies. Both species show amazing adaptations that were most likely arrived at by trial and error. The polar bear has thick, white fur to blend in with its surroundings for hunting camouflage and warmth. The fur is also greasy to help shed water which keeps its body warm. The bear’s black skin absorbs heat from the sun. With its excellent swimming abilities, the polar bear is the dominant predator on floating sea ice.

The monarch is the only butterfly that migrates. It will take up to five generations in its migration to Canada, with each generation living only two to six weeks. One super generation, however, will live eight to nine months, travel up to 3,000 miles back to Mexico, winter there and then begin the journey back to the U.S., laying its eggs on the very first milkweed it encounters before it dies. 

Polar bears maintain the ecological balance in the Arctic while monarchs are major pollinators of plants in North America. Yet, both are in danger of becoming extinct by 2050 due to rapid climate change that they cannot possibly adapt to quickly enough to maintain their population. Rapidly increasing warmth in the Arctic is melting sea ice at a phenomenal rate, threatening the bear’s ability to hunt and reproduce successfully. Changed weather patterns brought on by increasing greenhouse gases have contributed to the reduction of the monarch population by up to 80%. 

I am as guilty as anyone else of living a lifestyle high in carbon dioxide production, the number one culprit behind our quickly warming climate today. My footprint on this earth is way too large if I want my grandchildren to see polar bears and monarchs in the wild like I have seen in my lifetime. My awareness of the problem is important only if I am willing to take action to change my lifestyle in order to lower my production of greenhouse gases. 

I have replaced conventional light bulbs with LED’s; unplugged chargers when not in use; turned off lights not needed; bought locally produced food to reduce shipping, and eating all of what I bought; composted; limited the buying of products that are not easily recyclable or dead ends (plastic); walked when I could instead of driving; and shopped locally. 

I know I can do so much more as I continue my quest to ensure that my grandchildren will see polar bears in the wild and monarchs fluttering in their garden. 

What will you do to make a difference?

Larry Berland

Larry Berland is a retired biology and environmental education teacher. He currently coaches the Decorah High School envirothon teams and Decorah girls tennis. He and his wife, Vicki, reside in Decorah.