Imagine a watery world, three decades from now, where the last, wild polar bears survive on stubborn patches of sea ice in a high Arctic haven that allows regulated offshore oil drilling, tourism and shipping.
That's roughly the future envisioned by the World Wildlife Fund under a project that could receive several million dollars from Coca-Cola aimed at helping to protect the white bruins and other ice-dependent animals.
Some scientists believe that as early as 2040, the last stretches of polar summer sea ice will cling to coastlines along the northernmost reaches of Canada and Greenland -- if climate change continues at its current pace, said Geoff York. Once a federal polar bear biologist in Alaska, York is now program leader for the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic Species Conservation Program.
York, 43, came up with the idea for this "Last Ice Area" three years ago after reading studies from scientific colleagues suggesting that the Arctic archipelago off northeast Canada may one day become the last redoubt for the world's ice animals.
The region encompasses about 500,000 square miles, roughly twice the size of Texas. It houses the world's thickest and oldest sea ice; ice floes generated on the Russian side of the Arctic collect there after riding polar currents across the top of the globe.
As ice vanishes elsewhere in the Arctic, the area will become critical for polar bears and seals, the theory goes.
The end of the Arctic as we know it?
Coca-Cola has already committed $2 million over the next five years to jumpstart the campaign to save the company's iconic marketing beast, said York, speaking by phone from a camp in Deadhorse, the oil industry's jumping-off point to the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska. York is working with other scientists there, using infrared technology to scout polar bear dens so industry ice roads can avoid them.
He said Coca-Cola will match up to $1 million in campaign donations raised before March 15, 2012. The recently launched effort has already amassed nearly $100,000, according to its website. Coca-Cola introduced special, limited-edition white cans for the campaign but has lately announced it would change the color back to red because consumers thought they weren't buying Coca-Cola Classic.
And Coca-Cola is taking its own steps to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change.
"We aim to reduce our absolute emissions from manufacturing operations in developed countries by 5 percent," the Coca-Cola website says. "We are working to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from our vending machines and coolers through the installation of HFC-free systems and intelligent energy management devices. We are also deploying hybrid-electric and alternative fuel vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our fleet."
York said company officials are sincere about protecting the polar bear. "I've seen a lot of sincerity and passion at the personal level, all the way up to CEOs who are involved," he said.
How would the last "Last Ice Area" be managed?
The conservation group plans to use at least some Coca-Cola money to begin working with Inuit leaders, government bodies and others stakeholders in the region.
"We want this to be led by the folks who will be most impacted," York said.
World Wildlife Fund hopes to "arrive at a consensus conclusion about how the area should be managed," said Clive Tesar, head of communications for the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic program.
Part of the money from Coca-Cola will help pay for baseline studies in the region to assess its ecological value. Researchers will investigate where subsistence hunting occurs and what areas are most used by polar bears, seals and whales.
A relatively small number of polar bears occupy that high Arctic region, said York, who couldn’t provide a specific figure. But that population may grow as waters continue to warm and more ocean organisms, fish and seals move into the region, as some scientists expect.
The idea that northern Canada and Greenland might house the last summer sea ice -- and therefore the last Northern Hemisphere ice animals -- is a commonly accepted theory in the scientific world, said Karyn Rode, a polar bear biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's not a wild idea," she said. "It's a paradigm we're working under."
But she added that there are multiple future scenarios. Ice is melting at different rates across the Arctic, and it's difficult to know how much summer ice will remain in 2040 -- or any other year.
How many bears will the area support if it does become a summer ice sanctuary?
"That's one of the basic questions we need to find out," said York.
Some 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears are thought to exist today among 19 subpopulations spread across the Arctic. Several of those subpopulations are declining, and an estimated two-thirds are expected to vanish in the next half century.
Some polar bears might survive on shore, despite long stretches without summer ice, in places such as Wrangell Island in Alaska or in Chukotka in eastern Russia, feeding on berries, kelp, carcasses and goose eggs.
But not for long, said York.
"Researchers have estimated 180 days in a (relative) fasting mode before (polar bears) hit reproductive failure," York said, "so those attempts to adapt by staying on shore will ultimately fail if the sea ice stays gone in summer for longer and longer periods.
"Polar bears have evolved to live off a high-fat diet and there's nothing on land that provides that caloric bang for the buck."
York, who spent 12 years with the USGS in Alaska, began working with the conservation group three years ago so his science could reach a broader audience.
"I basically realized the scientific research I was involved with at USGS was only part of the solution, and I needed to make sure that science got out to the public and policy makers in way that was useful to them," he said. "So I've been able to become more of an advocate for science."
Striking balance between Nature, economy
Preliminary ideas for the so-called Last Ice Area suggest it won't be a wildlife refuge because human uses will be permitted and it won't lock out industry, said York.
"We're talking about doing something very different in the Arctic," he said. "This isn't the classic, draw a line around the map and kick everyone out."
"You have a part of Canada -- Nunavut -- that desperately needs some economic development, so we have to balance the needs of the people that live there, with the needs of the wildlife they also rely on."
One promising idea from Inuit groups proposes creating critical habitat that receive different levels of protection at different times of the year. For example, development would not be allowed in areas where bowhead whales migrate, calve and breed, for two-to-three month periods at a time, York said, adding that afterward, "you can open it up again."
The sea-ice sanctuary isn't a permanent solution. In fact, the polar bear may not survive, even in that region, if carbon emissions aren't reduced.
"That's something we try to make clear up front," he said. "To save polar bears and ice-dependent species in the Arctic as we know them today, we've got to do something about greenhouse gases. That's the starting point. But at the same time, we have to prepare for changes that are likely to come."
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com