An interview with Rod Downie – WWF’s Chief Polar Advisor

On Thursday 6 December, Rod Downie, WWF’s Chief Polar Advisor, came to Edinburgh to share his understanding and encounters of the Arctic’s most notorious species – the polar bear. With nearly two decades of experience in working in polar conditions, Rod explains the ins and outs of carrying out science in such an inhospitable location and examines the status of the polar bear’s future in regards to climate change. We were lucky enough to speak to Rod prior to his talk and ask him a few extra questions.

Could you start by briefly explaining, for anyone that couldn’t make it to your talk today, what the take-home message is from your Icons on Ice presentation?

The take-home message is that there are huge challenges ahead for arctic wildlife and for arctic people. However, by tackling climate change we can still stabilise the Arctic and guarantee a future for polar bears and for people. So, by having a better understanding of polar bears today we can help to protect them and ensure that they can thrive in the future, but there are huge challenges ahead.

Conducting research in the Arctic must be a truly incredible experience. The first time you went out there, what was your reaction?

Well, I first started by working in Antarctica, where I spent 15 field seasons, which is about two and a half years. It was Captain Scott that talked about the idea of ‘polar fever,’ that you can go to the Arctic once and then it’s inside you, and after that, you want to go back again and again, and I can say I definitely caught polar fever.

You’ve been working in the polar regions for almost two decades, in terms of climate change that’s a pretty significant time frame. Have you noticed any changes first-hand to the environments out there?

It’s difficult for me to say from an arctic perspective because I don’t go back to the same place every year, but you don’t need to go to the Arctic to see the changes that are happening. As I mention in my talk, there are satellites crossing the Arctic every day taking satellite photographic images, so we know that climate change is happening and we know that it’s happening very dramatically, even faster than any of the models really predicted.

So you go to different places every time?

It depends on what I’m doing, but yes I’ve been to different places in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Do you have a favourite out of the two?

The two are completely different so it’s very difficult to say, the Arctic has polar bears which is pretty cool and it has people. The Antarctic is more remote, it’s more extreme and it seems more other-worldly.

Do you believe that this is an environment that can still be recovered or are we too far down the line?

Yes, I think we can recover it but we have to move fast. Now it is truly urgent and it will be a great challenge but yes we can still stabilise the arctic. By limiting global temperatures to below 1.5°C, then we can stabilise the arctic. However, I should say that it is definite that the Arctic is going to change, but we still have the possibility to stabilise it at the lowest point of change.

To a lot of humans, polar bears probably just seem like big scary creatures. Compared to species like penguins, why is it specifically polar bears that we should care so much about protecting?

Polar bears are apex predators in the Arctic. They’re at the top of the food chain, so they can signal change much further down the food chain, therefore studying polar bears actually gives us insight into a much broader perspective of the situation in the Arctic.

As our newspaper is predominantly read by students, I’m sure a few people would be interested to know how you found yourself in this job, and what advice you’d give to anyone looking to get into conservation?

I began by doing an MSc in Environmental Management and Environmental Science. I had always been fascinated with the polar regions, but more from a historical perspective, looking into the heroic age of exploration with Scott and Shackleton. But I ended up doing my thesis on oil pollution in ice and I worked with the British Antarctic Survey on that and then they offered me a contract from there.

 

Image credit: Christopher Michel via Flickr

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