Ian Stirling’s latest howler: “the polar bear who died of climate change”

Will wildlife biologist and Polar Bear Specialist Group member Ian Stirling now say anything – no matter how unscientific – to garner more sympathy and media attention for polar bears? It appears so.  [see followup post published Aug. 11, here]

A tabloid-style picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words article appeared in the environment section of the UK newspaper The Guardian yesterday (August 6, 2013) with a picture of a dead polar bear meant to wring your heart. The picture is a vehicle for statements from Ian Stirling and others that this polar bear died from climate change. A longer article was alongside.

The caption below the photo of a dead polar bear (animal tragedy porn) is this:

This 16-year-old male polar bear died of starvation resulting from the lack of ice on which to hunt seals, according to Dr Ian Stirling.”

Many folks have been asking questions about this and so have I.

I suggest this is what really happened: the polar bear biologists working in Svalbard earlier this year knew this bear was going to die back in April when they captured him – they simply waited, with a photographer on hand, until he died. It was an orchestrated photo-op.

[Update, Aug. 8, 2013: I suggest it was not necessary for anything more to happen to “orchestrate” this photo than for the researchers who captured the bear in April to tell colleagues and local tour boat operators (who always have avid photographers on board) to “keep an eye out for a dead bear, we don’t think this guy is going to make it.” However, very little real information is provided. Who knows when (or from whom) we’ll get the whole story — if ever? That’s why anecdotal accounts like these aren’t “evidence” of anything, in the scientific sense. That’s the real take-home message here.  If this dead bear was being presented as scientific evidence, we’d have been given all the details, including necropsy results, local ice conditions, precise dates, locations, and photos of any other bears that were seen that were in poor condition. In other words, a proper scientific report. ]

What the newspapers said:
Ian Stirling is quoted extensively in the short Guardian piece explaining the circumstances of the dead polar bear:

“Dr Ian Stirling, now at Polar Bears International, said the bear had been in apparently good health when it was examined by scientists in April in southern Svalbard. It was found dead three months later [July] in northern Svalbard, far from its normal range. Stirling said most of the fjords in Svalbard did not freeze normally last winter, driving the bear further afield in the hunt for food. From his lying position in death, Stirling said, the bear appears to simply have starved and died where he dropped, having been reduced to little more than skin and bone.”

From the longer Guardian piece:

“The bear had been examined by scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute in April in the southern part of Svalbard, an Arctic island archipelago, and appeared healthy. The same bear had been captured in the same area in previous years, suggesting that the discovery of its body, 250km away in northern Svalbard in July, represented an unusual movement away from its normal range. The bear probably followed the fjords inland as it trekked north, meaning it may have walked double or treble that distance.”

Stirling, now at Polar Bears International and previously at the University of Alberta and the Canadian Wildlife Service, said: “Most of the fjords and inter-island channels in Svalbard did not freeze normally last winter and so many potential areas known to that bear for hunting seals in spring do not appear to have been as productive as in a normal winter. As a result, the bear likely went looking for food in another area but appears to have been unsuccessful.”

Scientists are tracking polar bears with radio collars in Svalbard, Norway, to monitor their search for food.”

NBC News picked up the story on August 7, 2013 and had this to add:

“Ashley Cooper, the photographer who took the picture, said the sight of the dead polar bear was “desperately sad.”

“There was just no fat on it. It was just completely shrunken and shriveled, a very, very skinny specimen of a polar bear,” he said in a telephone interview. “It looked basically like a rug because there was just no weight on it at all.”

Cooper said scavengers had not eaten parts of the body and there were no signs of decomposition, which happens slowly in the low temperatures of the Arctic.

He said he saw five live polar bears during a 12-day trip to Svalbard in July. Three looked “quite thin and not in great condition” and the only one that looked healthy was hunting on sea ice barely strong enough to support its weight about 550 miles from the North Pole.” [my bold]

How is it possible that this bear was healthy in April but dead by starvation less than 3 months later? Why was he even on land in April? Why was global warming photographer Ashley Cooper in Svalbard for 12 days in July, fortuitously available to take the bear’s picture?  

The fact that the bear was onshore in April, available for capture by polar bear biologists, is a red flag. He should not have left the ice this early. He should have been out on the ice hunting seals. The ice may have pulled away from the shore but there was no compelling reason for him to go onshore if he was healthy and still successfully hunting – he just had to stay on the ice. He must have been sick or dying of old age.

This bear was doomed back in April by the simple act of leaving the ice so early and the biologists working the region (putting radio collars on bear) had to have known it: leaving the ice in April was not normal behavior. I suggest they alerted their colleagues and then kept track of him until he died, so they could get a useful picture of his dead carcass.

Dying of old age
Male polar bears in Hudson Bay and Davis Strait routinely go through a 4 month fast every summer of their lives (females fast for 8 months, see previous posts here and here. A bear in good condition should be able to live through a 3 month fast – since this Svalbard bear didn’t survive for three months, he could not have been healthy.

Ian Stirling himself, in his 2011 book on polar bears (see previous post here), had this to say on longevity: “…the intense competition between adult males is probably the main reason they have a higher annual mortality rate than females” (pg. 208).

Old bears starve to death. Stirling also says that the oldest male bear on record, from a wild population, was a 28 year old bear from James Bay (in the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation, see previous post here), which is also where the oldest female lived to the age of 32. She also starved to death and Stirling watched her die (described in detail in the book, pg. 211).

The decline of old age is highly individual (which is why some die at 15 or 18 years, while a few live past 20). Perhaps one of the reasons old bears die of starvation is that something goes wrong with their ability to fast properly. In other words, their metabolism probably fails to slow down and they burn their stored fat too quickly. [Check out the picture of a starving polar bear taken back in 2003 (on ice, not land), also in Svalbard (Spitsbergen, Hornsund): when adult polar bears die, it is almost always a death by starvation.]

Polar bear biologists routinely use tragedy porn
Note that there haven’t been any incidents of cannibalism this year (despite the record low sea ice in September 2012), so this emaciated dead bear was the next best thing to emphasize the “message” that polar bears are already being harmed by global warming.

Keep in mind that the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) has had (or will shortly have) its once-every-four-year meeting of its polar bear biologist and conservation activist members. After the meeting, they will issue a press release with their latest pronouncements on the plight of the bears and the most up-to-date estimates of the size of the global population.

I suggest this incident is meant to prime the media pump to make sure the PBSG get maximum coverage and that the right message is spread. They did it before, back in 2009 (before the international climate meetings in Copenhagen (IPCC), discussed here), and it worked very well for them. That time, they used photos and video of an adult male dragging around the carcass of a cub it had killed and partially consumed.

Polar bear scientists (and the activist group Polar Bears International) know how to use the media to get their message out – and never doubt that they have a message.

This was not a great year for sea ice around Svalbard but it wasn’t unprecedented. There have been low ice years before (see the sea ice maps below). Bears that don’t have the experience, or the sense, to stay in the north, where the ice remains the longest, are always going to be in trouble when these conditions occur.

But it is telling that in this instance, global warming activist photographer Ashley Cooper [“Ashley is constantly adding to his portfolio of global warming images.”] just happened to be on hand to take the picture. The same thing was orchestrated back in 2009 for the incident of cannibalism in Western Hudson Bay mentioned above. Polar Bears International was also involved in that circus – in fact, it not only provided the photographer in 2009, it issued the press release.

There seems to have been no press release associated with this report (there is not one listed on their website), so how did the Guardian get the story? Who told them what was going on? Ian Stirling? Apparently, he is now an employee of PBI, although there is nothing on their website to indicate he is more than the “scientific adviser” he has been for a long time. So this story also is an announcement of sorts that Stirling has become a professional advocate.

In short, it’s pretty clear to me that this poor bear did not die of climate change: he was simply used as a prop for the message that activist polar bear biologists want to convey.

Sea ice maps for 2013 vs. 2006, 1985 and 2008

Svalbard, from Google maps

Svalbard, from Google maps, for orienting the ice maps below.

Sea ice conditions were as bad in 2006 (at July 15), above, as they were this year. And in 1985 they were almost as bad. But in 2008 (see below), they were much better. Cryosphere Today, University of Illinois.

Sea ice conditions were as bad in 2006 (at July 15), above, as they were this year. In 1985, below, they were almost as bad. But in 2008 (further below), they were much better. Cryosphere Today, University of Illinois.

Sea ice concentration July 15 1985 and 2013

Sea ice concentration July 15 2008 and 2013

References [more at the links to related stories cited above]
Stirling, I. 2011. Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Markham.

Stirling, I. and Lunn, N.J. 1997. Environmental fluctuations in arctic marine ecosystems as reflected by variability in reproduction of polar bears and ringed seals. In Ecology of Arctic Environments, Woodin, S.J. and Marquiss, M. (eds), pg. 167-181. Blackwell Science, UK.

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