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Steven Amstrup says it's not too late to save polar bears – and ourselves

'We know the answer to what it takes to save' polar bears, says environmental prize winner Steven Amstrup, who has gone to the Arctic to study the bears for 30 years.

By Yvonne ZippCorrespondent / October 19, 2012

Polar bears are threatened by climate change.

US Fish and WildLife Service/Steven Amstrup/AP

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Indianapolis

With apologies to "The Tipping Point" author Malcolm Gladwell, there is no tipping point – at least, not when it comes to global warming and sea ice.

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Steven Amstrup, a senior scientist at Polar Bears International, has led a team of researchers that discovered that, contrary to expectations, even if all the sea ice in the Arctic disappeared, once the planet cooled back down, it would return.

"That was one of the great discoveries that allowed us to continue to instill hope in people that we could do something," Dr. Amstrup says. "Human nature is such that, if you think there's nothing you can do, you don't do anything. So this was a really important find."

That scientific discovery, published in 2010 in the journal Nature, is just one of the reasons that Amstrup was honored with this year's Indianapolis Prize, which is awarded every two years to a leader in the field of animal conservation. The winner receives $100,000 and the Lilly Medal.

The jury places great importance on the quality of the candidate's scientific research and on whether a species has a stronger potential to survive as a result of the work, explains Michael Crowther, chief executive officer of the Indianapolis Zoo, which administers the prize.

"In Steve's case, they were able to answer both requirements with great affirmation," he says. "On the back of the Lilly Medal … there is a quote from John Muir: 'When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.' The polar bear is one of the ultimate examples of a thing by itself" – but Amstrup has shown its connection to everything else.

Amstrup, a native of North Dakota, spent 30 years studying polar bears and their habitats as project leader for Polar Bear Research at the US Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. In 2007, he led a different team of re-searchers that was able to get the bears listed as threatened on the US government's Endangered Species List – the only animal to date to be included because of causes related to global warming.

Earlier in his career, Amstrup solved the mystery of where female polar bears give birth. More than half of them dig their dens on ice floes to have their cubs, making the species vulnerable to climate change.

"His work on polar bear conservation is tremendously important, not only for polar bears but for the entire Arctic ecosystem, and for the multitude of species around the world that are now at risk from global warming," said Eric DeWeaver, program director of the Climate and Large-Scale Dynamics Program at the National Science Foundation, in a statement.

Along the way, Amstrup has camped on the ice (which, he says, gave him a taste – "just a smidgen" – of the conditions 19th-century explorers endured) and biked to work through Alaskan winters ("It's a little bit vigorous," he says.).

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