I guess Suzanne Goldenberg, writing for The Guardian, just couldn’t help herself with this latest story (November 4): “Polar bear attacks: scientists warn of fresh dangers in warming Arctic. Two people injured in latest attack as hungry bears deprived of access to sea ice increasingly look for food on land.”
Reporting on the attack is one thing — several papers covered this over the weekend (see Featured Quote #46, posted yesterday, for links to two of them). However, Goldenberg shamelessly makes this about global warming, aided and abetted by Polar Bears International (PBI) representative Steven Amstrup, a claim that doesn’t hold up to even minor scrutiny.
Here is the most ludicrous part of her story:
“It [the attack] has also prompted new warnings from scientists of the rising risks of human-polar bear encounters because of climate change, with starving bears coming off the ice and onto land looking for food.” [my bold]
First of all, polar bears are not starving when they come off the ice – Western and Southern Hudson Bay bears are at their heaviest when they leave the ice in mid-summer. And they don’t come onto land looking for food, they come ready to fast. Polar bears in Hudson Bay expect to live off their fat until the ice comes back. If they find easily available food on land, they’ll eat it. But most bears don’t need to eat.
Nowhere in any of the stories I’ve read on this attack are there many details about the attacking bear: curiously, they don’t say if it was male or female, or in good or poor body condition. Goldenberg’s piece said witnesses described the bear as a “sub-adult” and that the cub of a female shot in the aftermath of the attack was taken to the Winnipeg Zoo. The article carried in the Nunatsiaq News Nov. 1 said this:
“Natural resource officers eventually tracked and killed the bear. Media reports say another bear, a female not involved in the attack, was also found near town and killed. Her cub was discovered nearby and taken to a holding facility.”
So, at least three bears made it through Churchill’s Polar Bear Patrol. And surely if any of these bears had been obviously starving, this would have been noted. As it stands, information about the bear’s condition is conspicuous by its absence.
Predictably, Goldenberg finishes her story with a quote from PBI’s Steven Amstrup:
“The number of bear-human interactions, bear-human conflicts, may be somewhat on the rise,” said Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International.
“ We have predicted in no uncertain times that as bears become hungrier as the sea ice absence period is longer, more and more of these animals are going to be venturing into communities, venturing into villages, raiding food caches, getting into garbage, and even attacking people. So we predict these kinds of events are going to be more frequent and more severe because of climate change.”
Really, attacks “may be somewhat on the rise”? Now that’s a vague and totally unsupported statement made to sound sciency!
Amstrup and his colleagues may indeed have predicted an increase in bear-human conflicts due to global warming decades from now but there hasn’t been much change so far and its not getting worse. Breakup of the sea ice in Hudson Bay was not early this year but about average: as late as June 30, there was still a considerable amount of ice in Hudson Bay and bears left the ice early-to-late July.
Ice is already starting to form on the western shore of Hudson Bay (Fig.1) and high temperatures at Churchill are at or below freezing. The polar bears won’t have much longer to wait for the ice (see previous post here).
There are no indications that this is shaping up to be a “low-ice” year in western Hudson Bay and absolutely no basis for blaming this attack on low ice levels due to global warming.
The pertinent point is the one the National Post chose to end their article:
“Webber [a neighbour] said two attacks in such a short time have left people a “little on the frightened side.”
“There’s only been a handful in the last 50 years I’ve been here,” Webber said.
“We tend to get fairly blasé about polar bears until something like this happens.”[my bold]
Bottom line: This incident has nothing to do with global warming or sea ice levels, and everything to do with a few people becoming complacent about a very real threat in their community. The folks of Churchill live in the “Polar bear capital of the world” and they cannot afford to be blasé during the fall.