Geoff York

Senior Director of Research & Policy At Polar Bears International.

Geoff York is senior director of research and policy at Polar Bears International. He has more than 30 years of Arctic field experience, including 14 consecutive years researching polar bears in Alaska’s Chukchi and Southern Beaufort seas. In addition, he’s conducted polar bear research projects in Canada, Russia, and Norway (Svalbard), from population surveys to den research. Geoff’s career with polar bears began as a biologist and program manager for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center, which conducts long-term studies on polar bears to inform local, national, and international policy. Later, he served as the Arctic Species and Polar Bear Lead for WWF’s Global Arctic Program, where he immersed himself in international policy issues. He joined PBI’s team in 2014, where he has continued his interest in policy and in field-based work across the Arctic, including a focus on reducing conflict between polar bears and people, a growing problem in a changing Arctic. He is a member of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the U.S. Polar Bear Recovery Team, and a past chair and active member of the Polar Bear Range States Conflict Working Group. He also sits on the advisory board for the International Polar Bear Conservation Center in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He earned a M.S. in biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a B.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame—the perfect combination for communicating science. Geoff has dedicated his career to the conservation of polar bears and their Arctic home. He is based in Springfield, Missouri.

 
Q&A with Barbara Nielsen, Director of Communications at Polar Bears International



Interviews

2010

When Arctic Stories first meets biologist Geoff York, a member of the polar bear program at USGS and Arctic Species and Polar Bear Lead for World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF’s) Global Arctic Program, he reflects on the early days of his involvement. Recounting his initial encounters with polar bears, he emphasizes their surreal appearance and the stark contrast of their white fur against the barren landscape. He also shares a harrowing experience from his time with the Marine Mammal project, when they found themselves unexpectedly approached by an adult male polar bear while sampling carcasses. The incident escalated as they attempted to deter the bear, with one team member resorting to firing warning shots and another charging at the bear with a snow machine. Despite their efforts, the bear remained aggressive, displaying intense jaw-popping and pursuing them for a considerable distance. This encounter left a lasting impression on Geoff, as he had never seen such aggressive behavior from a polar bear before or since.

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Biologist Geoff York, a passionate advocate for the Arctic and polar bears, is drawn to the vastness and untouched beauty of the region. With a deep connection to the Arctic’s dynamic environment, he explores the sea ice and witnesses the incredible resilience of polar bears in their frozen habitat. Geoff’s career transition from a researcher with the US Geological Survey to a conservation leader at the World Wildlife Fund reflects his commitment to collaboration, knowledge sharing, and influencing positive change. With an optimistic outlook, he believes that by addressing climate change and protecting the Arctic, we can secure a future for polar bears and the unique ecosystem they call home.

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Geoff York, an Arctic enthusiast and polar bear advocate, shares a captivating story of his closest encounter with a polar bear. While conducting research on the ice, Geoff and his team often attract the curiosity of other bears. One particular incident stood out when they unintentionally disturbed a female bear in her den. As they were examining the den, the bear unexpectedly emerged, causing a moment of panic. However, the bear displayed non-aggressive behavior, merely investigating their presence. Geoff recounts the intense moments when he thought his life might end, but he was amazed by the bear’s lack of aggression. Eventually, with the combined efforts of the team and their quick reactions, the encounter ended without harm to anyone involved. This incident reinforced Geoff’s understanding of the bears’ behavior and their focus on ensuring their own safety rather than attacking humans.

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Geoff York, a conservationist with WWF, shares his passion for the Arctic during a recent conversation. As he glances at the map behind him, he expresses how it resonates with his worldview. Although he doesn’t live in the Arctic now, having formerly spent three years in Fairbanks, he feels a deep personal connection to the region. His drive to work towards its conservation stems from an unexplainable pull he feels towards the high north. In his new role at WWF, he coordinates their work throughout the circumpolar region, which has allowed him to broaden his understanding of the Arctic and its diverse peoples. Geoff’s upcoming travels to places like Svalbard and Wrangel Island will offer him a chance to gain insights into the different Arctic communities.

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2022

Conversing with Pete Lourie and Dr. Paul Shepson, Geoff York shares his transition to Polar Bears International (PBI) from the World Wildlife Fund. PBI has grown rapidly over the years, expanding its research programs and focusing on advocacy and policy work. Despite their dedicated efforts, Geoff expresses concern about the state of polar bears and the impacts of climate change. He emphasizes the urgency of taking action and the lack of progress on the political front. But he also highlights positive developments such as advancements in electrification, renewable energy, and increased awareness of the impacts of oil and gas activities. When it comes to storytelling and outreach, Geoff finds videos to be the most powerful tool to educate the public, as they provide a visual and immersive experience for the audience. He believes in showcasing compelling visual assets and sharing genuine on-the-ground experiences to engage and educate people about the Arctic. Geoff and his team actively work with native peoples and communities, building relationships and collaborating on projects. They aim to involve local voices in the dissemination of information, ensuring a more comprehensive and authentic representation of the Arctic. Despite challenges, Geoff remains dedicated to his work, striving to make significant strides in conservation, even as the urgency to protect polar bears and their habitat continues to grow.

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Geoff York’s career trajectory has taken him from a pure research position at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to a more general role working across the Arctic. Currently, as part of Polar Bears International, he is involved in funding research programs, policy work, and advocacy. The organization has grown significantly over the years, expanding its reach and impact. However, when discussing the state of polar bears and the impacts of climate change, Geoff admits to being far from optimistic. The constant flow of bad news highlights the urgency of the situation and the challenges ahead in protecting polar bears and their Arctic habitat.

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Geoff York’s job has allowed him to move beyond the confines of a specific research area and gain a broader perspective on polar bear habitats. Working for organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and Polar Bears International, he has had the opportunity to travel extensively across the Arctic, visiting various polar bear habitats and building connections with partners and communities in different regions. This broader geographic scope has given him unique insights into how the impacts of climate change are affecting polar bears differently in various areas. Geoff’s experiences on the ground have been instrumental in his ability to share stories and raise awareness about the challenges polar bears face due to climate change.

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According to Geoff York, one of the most effective vehicles for storytelling is video. He believes that video is a powerful tool as it allows Polar Bears International and other environmental organizations to visually take people to different places and include diverse voices from their team and partner organizations. By embedding videos in presentations, Geoff can create a more engaging and immersive experience for the audience, showcasing compelling visual assets of the Arctic and its wildlife. Geoff also highlights the significance of using visual imagery, especially in portraying animals like polar bears, which many people may never get a chance to see in the wild, except in local zoos or aquariums.

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Geoff York and Polar Bears International collaborate with native communities, including Cree, Dene, Métis, and Inuit. They work on polar bear safety projects and engage students through coloring books. Polar bear hunting is managed at the provincial and federal levels in Canada and Alaska, with hunting quotas varying among regions. Over time, hunting levels have decreased, and it remains a challenging and risky activity due to harsh conditions.

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Geoff York highlights the urgency of facing up to negative impacts on polar bears due to downstream changes, some of which may be irreversible and damaging. He emphasizes the need to consider not just wildlife but also the people in the Arctic and beyond. Geoff believes in framing communications to connect with people’s lives, making them aware of climate threats and encouraging specific actions. Balancing public sympathy with the complexities of conservation, he navigates the challenges of addressing individual cases while focusing on broader population conservation efforts.

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Geoff York shares his experiences with varying perspectives on renewable energy, where enthusiasm and optimism often come from younger generations. He observes that even among conservation-minded individuals, there can be infighting and resistance to certain renewable energy projects. However, he remains hopeful and continues to advocate for a broader perspective, considering the bigger picture and the trade-offs for any solution. He emphasizes the need to focus on the positive impacts of renewable energy, despite the challenges of nimbyism and political divisions. Geoff also highlights instances of unexpected support for renewable energy, even from conservative individuals, which gives him hope for a more inclusive and sustainable future.

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Geoff York works now at Polar Bears International (PBI) and he used to work for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), each of which focus on science and outreach rather than heavy lobbying in Washington. These nonprofits leverage scientific expertise for submissions in changing government policy and provide scientists for congressional testimony. PBI is expanding its policy and advocacy work and collaborates with zoos and aquariums to reach millions of people and influence policymakers indirectly through their advocacy efforts.

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Geoff York, representing organizations like Polar Bears International (PBI), recognizes the importance of promoting renewable energy and the shift to electric vehicles. While some NGOs lobby and invest in renewable energy, PBI’s approach is more science and outreach-oriented. PBI collaborates with zoos and aquariums to reach millions of people and influence policymakers indirectly through their advocacy efforts. Geoff is hopeful that once the social tipping point for electric vehicles is reached and people realize their benefits, the transition to renewable energy will accelerate. He believes that economic pressures, such as insurance companies facing the financial impact of climate change-related disasters, could also drive positive change.

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Geoff York’s voice plays a significant role in promoting progress for climate change. He emphasizes the importance of conversations and cultural values in driving change. Through Arcticstories.net, these discussions create connections and evolve over time. Geoff mentions the significance of engaging with people who hold different perspectives, even if disagreements arise. He believes that corporations, despite their past actions, have the potential to change and become part of the solution. Although some corporations have made strides in promoting renewable energy, Geoff highlights the need for a genuine commitment to sustainability to create a positive impact on the planet.

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