Polar bear researchers still withholding Hudson Bay data

The latest polar bear propaganda emanating from The Guardian is unscientific nonsense fed to them by activist Canadian polar bear researchers: Polar bear numbers in Hudson Bay of Canada on verge of collapse.

This episode of Goldenberg’s polar bear grandstanding includes a photo caption with a totally unsubstantiated claim that some folks might call a lie:

Melting ice is cutting polar bears off from their food source in Hudson Bay, and death rates have soared.

“Death rates have soared”? Where are all the bodies? Show us the starving bears!

In fact, the ice of Hudson Bay melts every summer and always has done. When it does, polar bears go ashore and live off the many inches of stored blubber they put on during their spring feasting on fat baby seals. The last three years, the open-water season has been only about two weeks longer than it was in the 1980s. There has been no steady increase but lots of variability.

Below I dismantle the rest of this transparently political posturing ahead of the international polar bear forum next week.

Knowing that a big polar bear conservation meeting is coming up, it’s pretty clear that most of this propaganda is politically motivated.

Near the beginning of this piece, this reporter mocks Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s attempt earlier this year to insert a non-alarmist perspective into a discussion about polar bears and climate change. Goldenberg states:

“The Canadian environment minister provoked outrage last October when she discounted abundant scientific studies of polar bear decline across the Arctic, saying her brother, a hunter, was having no trouble finding bears. Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk, spoke of a “debate” about the existence of climate change.” [my bold, link in original]

[Indeed, the press jumped on Aglukkaq relentlessly (examples here and here) after her comment this fall, which she later defended]

Finally, Goldenberg gets to the guts of her story: she highlights previously unreported data given to her by activist polar bear researchers who work in Western Hudson Bay with some fancy graphics (a couple of them copied below).

The newest population estimate (see Fig. 1) is based on data only she has seen: it has not been reported anywhere for anyone to see the background details. I’d bet that even this headline-generator for The Guardian hasn’t seen the full report, but was given only the final numbers. She states:

One single polar bear population on the western shore of Hudson Bay, for example, has shrunk by nearly 10% to 850 bears in under a decade, according to the latest Canadian government estimate seen by the Guardian.

The latest Canadian government estimates, which have yet to be shared with independent scientists or the public, confirm scientists’ fears that the polar bears of the western Hudson Bay have little chance of long-term survival.” [my bold]

Have a look at the graphic that depicts this “yet to be shared” data:

Figure 1. On the left, the Western Hudson Bay population estimate for 2013 (“850”) is unsubstantiated – is this based on actual counts or a computer modeled projection? Goldenberg does not say. On the right (“mean estimated mass of lone adult female bears”), note that while the data presented goes to 2007 (only 6 years out of date), in fact the only published data available goes to 2004: the rest is from “Lunn and Stirling, unpublished data.” Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. On the left, the Western Hudson Bay population estimate for 2013 (“850”) is unsubstantiated – is this based on actual counts or a computer modeled projection? Goldenberg does not say. On the right (“mean estimated mass of lone adult female bears”), note that while the data presented goes to 2007 (6 years out of date), in fact the only published data available goes to 2004: the rest is from “Lunn and Stirling, unpublished data.” Click to enlarge.

I’ve addressed this issued of polar bear researchers withholding data before, see “Critical evidence on polar bears in Hudson Bay is unpublished.” The truth is, there is no recently published data on estimated mass (i.e. weight) of female polar bears, litter sizes or survival of cubs in Hudson Bay, so no one knows whether what Stirling and Lunn are saying is actually backed up by solid data or not.

Here are the issues a published report would address: What period of time does the population study cover (left panel of Fig. 1)? Is it spring-collected data, fall-collected data, or both? What are the error bars like – the statistical range of the estimate? What kind of statistical analysis is it? Does the estimate really include 2013 data? [the 2013 fall season in Western Hudson Bay ended just last week: they have results calculated already?]

Is the new population estimate based on actual data collected between 2004 and 2013 or is it the result of yet another model that incorporates some old data and “projects” the rest? There is no way to know at this point, because no one has seen the full government report.

Finally, take a look at the “projection of the ice-free season” for Hudson Bay that The Guardian reporters constructed with the help of polar bear researchers (Fig. 2). The “recorded” data (i.e. the actual values) appears to end at 2000! That’s thirteen years ago! [it may actually be 2004, which makes more sense, but if so, the graphic is badly done indeed]

A projection of future sea ice based on data that’s thirteen years out of date (or even 7 years) is not science, it’s propaganda.

Figure 2. A fanciful projection of the ice-free season in Hudson Bay, based on 13 year old data (the observations – i.e., “recorded” – end in the year 2000). This kind of data manipulation is dishonest and totally unscientific but Canadian polar bear researchers Ian Stirling, Andrew Derocher and Nick Lunn not only endorse this kind of garbage but they’ve done it before. Click to enlarge.

Figure 2. A fanciful projection of the ice-free season in Hudson Bay, based on 13 year old data (the observations – i.e., “recorded” – end in the year 2000). This kind of data manipulation is dishonest and totally unscientific but Canadian polar bear researchers Ian Stirling, Andrew Derocher and Nick Lunn not only endorse this kind of garbage but they’ve done it before. Click to enlarge.

It doesn’t matter how often Suzanne Goldenberg keeps repeating the lie that the ice-free season in Hudson Bay is steadily lengthening – it doesn’t make it so, even if polar bear experts are the source of the information.

What are these guys thinking? It’s better to get in bed with an activist environmental reporter who can generate headlines than to publish the data and let it speak for itself?

Show us the starving Hudson Bay bears! Show us the Western Hudson Bay polar bear data that supposedly makes your case so strong we should revamp the world’s economy to save the bears from “collapse”!

Why are polar bear researchers still withholding data, if the stakes are so high?

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