Global polar bear abundance ‘best guess’ estimate is 39,000 (26,000-58,000)

This is a sticky post link to my March 2019 essay on polar bear numbers at 2018. View it here.

Fact checkers fail to refute polar bear number increases despite extensive ‘expert’ rhetoric

There’s seems to be something about polar bears that really sets off the climate change fact-checkers. Mention that the situation for the bears is not quite as dire as we were told they would be 15 years ago and they can’t wait to sink their teeth in.

In early September this year, an Australian a woman I’ve never heard of gave a lecture to students at her former girl’s school and in the process made some critical remarks about Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Gina Rinehart said, among other things:

“I’d heard that senior school students in a previous headmistress’s time, were having to watch … An Inconvenient Truth. Catchy title, but sadly short on delivery as far as truth is concerned, e.g. the sad loss of polar bears, when actually their numbers have increased…”

The folks who ‘fact-check’ at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) seemed to feel that Ms. Rinehart needed to be taken down a peg for the temerity of that remark, perhaps as it afforded an opportunity to take me down along with her: it seems some things I’ve said or published over the last few years were identified by her office as the source of her remark that polar bear numbers had increased.

In a long-winded essay of more than 2,500 words published yesterday (26 October 2021) the fact checkers provide one of the best examples yet of how convoluted is the official answer to the question: have overall polar bear numbers declined or increased over time? They interviewed a number of experts from the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) who had a lot to say but claimed it is impossible to address the global population issue.

Sadly, the question of how many polar bears exist today compared to decades ago is unnecessarily complicated and messy, as I discovered years ago. I dealt with this topic in my latest book, The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened, so for now I’ll just quote a bit from one of the chapters and let you decide for yourselves if the experts quoted by the ABC fact-checkers have a strong enough case to say without question that Rinehart was wrong. For example, you might ask why the PBSG experts used the estimate generated for the Kara Sea subpopulation of about 3,000 bears compiled by Russian researchers (Matishov et al. 2014) for their official IUCN 2015 assessment (Wiig et al. 2015; Regehr et al. 2016) but didn’t include that number in this ‘fact-check document – or why they similarly used an estimate of 2,000 for East Greenland for the 2015 assessment but provide no number for this ‘fact-check’. I’ll probably have more to say later.

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Caught on film: polar bear stalks, kills and eats a Svalbard reindeer but climate change is hardly to blame

The possibility that a polar bear somewhere in the Arctic might occassionally be successful at stalking and killing a reindeer (aka caribou) shouldn’t surprise anyone, let alone a biologist on Svalbard. But having video footage of the event makes it immediately newsworthy, especially when the researchers vaguely suggest that global warming might be to blame.

The title of the scientific paper that has generated the latest polar bear hype is called ‘Yes, they can: polar bears Ursus maritimus successfully hunt Svalbard reindeer Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus’ (Stempnlewicz et al. 2021).

Would any serious scientist really think they couldn’t?

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Most Chukchi Sea ice in 20 years means no walrus feasts for polar bears at famous Russian cliffs

After years of hype, including documentary over-reach by David Attenborough and his collaborators at WWF and Netflix, there has been relatively abundant ice in the Chukchi Sea this summer, particulary along the Russian coast and around Wrangel Island, which in recent years have been important summer refuge areas for polar bears and Pacific walrus.

Walrus carcasses at the base of the cliff at Cape Schmidt, September 2017. Credit: Y. Basov.

This year, there has been nothing like the complete retreat of ice into the Arctic Basin as happened in 2007, 2012, and 2020. The chart below shows the ice extent at 11 October 2021:

Wrangel Island was surrounded by ice in 2000 and 2001, which made access to walrus haulouts on the island impossible (Kochnev 2004). Most of the walrus haulouts along the Chukotka coast were also ice-covered in September in those years, as were all of the western locations in 2021 – as the ice charts below show. The extra ice will have drastically affected the distribution of walrus this year, which in turn will have meant no walrus carcasses for polar bears to feast on as they have done for many years now.

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Behold the walrus publicity stunt the WWF calls ‘science’

All you can do is laugh, really. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been pushing for years to position itself as a valid scientific authority but the kinds of projects they get involved with generally have little to do with real science and more to do with promoting their brand and its doomsday climate change narrative. The most recent example is a ‘Count walrus from space‘ ploy that is enlisting elementary school aged children and other members of the public to count Atlantic walrus from satellite photos, which the Washington Post obligingly promoted last week (proving the WWF massive free publicity).

WWF roped someone from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) into the four year scheme, which makes it seem like legitimate, real science. With this initiative, the WWF are strongly pushing a story that walrus throughout the Arctic are threatened by climate change due to melting Arctic sea ice. They have been doing this actively since 2015, as seen with their collaboration with Netflix and Sir David Attenborough in the ‘Our Planet’ Pacific walrus extravaganza that blew up into a massive controversy. I have more to say on that in my next book, whose publication is unfortunately behind schedule but will hopefully be out soon.

The first problem with this plan is that evidence is lacking to support the claim that walrus have been harmed by recent declines in sea ice. Despite current low numbers, Atlantic walrus are more abundant today than they were 100 years ago, after decades of commercial hunting reduced populations to near extinction levels (Born et al. 1995; Wiig et al. 2014).

The second problem is that walrus at land haulouts in summer or fall are notoriously difficult for professional scientists to count even from aerial photographs. The idea that children as young as nine years old can contribute to generating a more accurate count from satellite images is ludicrous.

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No signs of a climate emergency for W. Hudson Bay polar bears this year ahead of UN climate meeting

I’ve been told that another complete aerial survey of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation (from the Nunavut to Ontario boundaries) was conducted in August this year and that the bears have been hanging out further south than usual. It will be years before the results of the population count are published, of course (especially if it’s good news) but my contacts also say virtually all of the bears are in great condition again this year.

This is significant because W. Hudson Bay bears are one of the most southern subpopulations in the Arctic (only Southern HB bears live further south) and older data from this region is being used to predict the future for the entire global population based on implausible model projections (Molnar et al. 2020). And scary predictions of future polar bear survival are often taken to be proxies for future human disasters (see ‘Polar bears live on the edge of the climate change crisis‘), a point that some activists will no doubt make in the coming weeks, as the long-awaited UN climate change bash #26 (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, Scotland on October 31.

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Churchill problem polar bear reports finally completed and posted online

Although since 2015 at least the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill Manitoba usually issued and published its problem bear reports weekly during the ice-free season, this year has been an odd exception. Two reports in early July, then nothing. Yesterday, there was a dump of reports that had been compiled on 1 September and 7 October, according to their metadata.

There are still a few weeks missing, including the two most recent weeks but at least now we have a more complete picture of what’s been going on with problem bears in The Polar Bear Capital of the World that can be compared to previous years. Such reports in various forms go back to the late 1960s, although only those from recent years have been publicly available (Kearney 1989; Towns et al. 2009).

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Alaska polar bear researchers claim poor sea ice limited spring field work in 2021 more than 2019

According to an Inside Climate News report, polar bear researchers at the US Geological Survey had trouble darting bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea in March-May of 2019 and 2021. They claim their research program was hampered by thinner-than-necessary ice for safely landing the nearly 4,000 lb. outfitted helicopter (with crew and gear) in 2019 but that conditions in 2021 were even worse (it is implied work proceeded in 2020 despite pandemic restrictions but no data for that year are discussed).

However, this claim of worse conditions in 2021 is not corroborated by reports from sea ice experts and ice charts for the Southern Beaufort this spring, where thick first year and multiyear ice was present from March through June. Ice didn’t begin to pull away from landfast ice to form patches of open water near the Canadian border until late April 2021 compared to early May in 2019 (as it did in 2016), as shown in the video and charts below. Moreover, the researchers oddly fail to mention that the presence of thin ice and open water in spring is essential for polar bear survival in the Southern Beaufort, a fact which has been documented and discussed in the scientific literature by their colleagues.

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Sea ice growth after the summer minimum begins in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago

The Arctic sea ice minimum was declared to have been reached on 16 September this year (4.72 mkm2), breaking no records.

Ice extent can only go up from this point forward but at this time of year, it happens slowly and isn’t noticeable in the Arctic Basin as much as it is in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. As I wrote about last year, new ice development in the fall next to shore creates upwelling conditions that attract fish and seals, and therefore provides feeding opportunities for polar bears.

The same process likely happens when new ice forms next to old ice. These few weeks of developing sea ice, wherever they occur, are the last chance polar bears have to replace weight lost over the summer before the cold and darkness of winter reduces hunting opportunities to virtually nil.

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Fat polar bear of late summer in Arctic Canada

Retired Mountie and bird photographer Clare Kines captured on film one of those ‘canaries of in the coal mine’ of the Canadian Arctic we hear so much about. Kines is from Arctic Bay and took the photo a few weeks ago, on 9 September, on the north end of Baffin Island (just east of where the famous National Geographic ‘starving’ bear was filmed in 2017). His photo was published 14 September by Nunatsiaq News.

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Wrangel Island research team counted a record number of Chukchi Sea polar bears in 2020

Many Chukchi Sea polar bears spend the summer on Wrangel Island and a survey there conducted by Russian researchers in 2020 reportedly collected data on a record 747 bears, well up from the 589 reportedly counted in 2017 by the same team (photo below is from 2015).

Note the latest survey of the Chukchi Sea estimated about 3,000 bears inhabit the region (AC SWG 2018; Regehr et al. 2018), at least 1,000 more that the figure of 2,000 used in recent IUCN assessments and survival predictions (Amstrup et al. 2007; Regehr et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015). Wrangel Island is the primary terrestrial denning area in the Chukchi Sea (Garner et al. 1984; Rode et al. 2014) and a recently published study showed that the body condition (i.e. fatness) and litter size of Chukchi Sea polar bears has not been negatively affected by low summer sea ice (Rode et al. 2021).

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