Editorial calls for more jobs for polar bear biologists

An editorial in the Edmonton Journal this morning (“Stand on guard for polar bears”) takes a most extraordinary position: that the results of two recent papers of dubious value should motivate Canada to create more jobs for polar bear biologists, “protect” the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (from what, they don’t say), and galvanize Canada’s position with respect to curtailing carbon dioxide emissions. In that order.

Edmonton Journal editorial photo 22 January 2015

Edmonton Journal editorial photo 22 January 2015. Munich Zoo bears.

First, the unnamed editors1 say: “This country needs more eyes and ears monitoring the health, numbers and locations of its polar bear populations.

Why would they come to that conclusion? They quote University of Alberta’s Andrew Derocher (who supervises a number of students doing polar bear research in Western Hudson Bay):

“If Canada was doing the right thing, we’d have extensive monitoring,” University of Alberta polar bear researcher Andrew Derocher said to the Journal in late 2014.

Canadian experts working in the field are world-class.

With a majority of the world’s estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears living in Canada, researchers must feel stretched as thin as the melting ice, especially compared the United States, which has many more people monitoring Alaska’s smaller polar bear populations. [my bold]

The difference is that the US has declared polar bears to be ‘threatened’ with extinction under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), using some questionable methodology, which has indeed meant more jobs for its polar bear scientists.

In a previous post (here), I asked: “Are polar bear biologists who proclaim their heartfelt fear for the future of polar bears at every opportunity behaving as advocates for polar bears or protecting their own careers? Now the issue is front and centre again.

The editors continue:

“But Albertans, and all Canadians, ought to be giving serious thought to the condition of the polar bears’ northern habitat, even though it is a remote landscape many of us will never see.

Research lead by the U.S. Geological Survey and Government of Nunavut offers the latest in a long list of warnings. The work by a team of international scientists, published in the journal PLOS One in early January, revealed that recent generations of polar bears are on the move and heading toward areas with more reliable year-round sea ice as warming temperatures disrupt historic ice patterns.[my bold]

That’s the press release version: if you wade through the actual paper (Peacock et al. 2014, in press), as I did, you’ll find that, 1) the results are based on models with many built-in assumptions that may or may not be true, and 2) the authors only assumed the bears moved because of sea ice quality issues, and 3) the authors did not quantify how many bears may have been involved – they imply many bears moved, but in fact it could have been only a handful. See my full commentary here.

The editorial continues, citing one of the most alarmist polar bear paper written in years as “evidence” that the situation is dire:

Before you take too much comfort in the notion that polar bears have at least one guaranteed safe zone, consider a study released in late 2014 by University of Alberta researchers modelling melting sea ice. If greenhouse gases continue to rise unchecked, even Canada’s High Arctic Islands will have problems maintaining year-round ice by the end of this century. That’s a worst-case scenario, according to the study’s lead author Stephen Hamilton, but still a head’s up that even polar bears’ last refuge could start feeling the heat.” [my bold]

A “worst-case” scenario, as it turns out, that has no resemblance to reality.

Observations of actual global temperature vs. predicted global temperatures have been tracking at or below the “best-case” model scenarios but polar bear biologists think we should use the “worst-case” scenarios for predicting future sea ice for polar bears? [the “worst-case scenario” is “RCP 8.5” in the graphs below, which includes the original 2013 IPCC graph 11.25, from climate scientist Ed Hawkins; see addition discussion by climate scientist Judith Curry here]

What kind of sense does that make?

IPCC 2013 predictions vs. observations.

IPCC 2013 predictions vs. observations, from AR5. The “worst-case scenario” is “RCP 8.5” in these graphs, which includes the original 2013 IPCC graph 11.25 (middle panel), courtesy climate scientist Ed Hawkins. Click to enlarge.

In my opinion, the Hamilton study (Hamilton et al. 2014) was a total waste of time, money and resources — I don’t think it tells us anything useful.

[Hamilton, by the way, is one of Andrew Derocher’s students, and the recent peer-reviewed paper summarizes his doctoral research]

The editorial board goes on to proclaim:

“And finally, Canada needs to quit talking about doing something to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions and actually take concrete action to scale back our carbon footprint.

Targets are meaningless if we don’t meet them. And for the sake of the bears, we can’t afford to be international laggards.

Canada, as a whole, has been far too chill about the consequences of a global warming.

Canada has a lot to lose. So do the polar bears.” [my bold]

If that doesn’t make this a case of journalists using a bit of dubious science to promote a particular agenda, I don’t know what does. But then, you might also say that they are simply following the lead of our most prominent polar bear biologists.

Read the whole thing here.

1. At the bottom of another editorial (but not this one), it states:

Editorials are the consensus opinion of the Journal’s editorial board, comprising Margo Goodhand, Kathy Kerr, Karen Booth, Sarah O’Donnell and David Evans.”

Hamilton SG, Castro de la Guardia L, Derocher AE, Sahanatien V, Tremblay B, et al. 2014. Projected Polar Bear Sea Ice Habitat in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. PLoS ONE 9(11): e113746. Open access doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0113746

Peacock E, Sonsthagen SA, Obbard ME, Boltunov A, Regehr EV, et al. 2015. Implications of the Circumpolar Genetic Structure of Polar Bears for Their Conservation in a Rapidly Warming Arctic. PLoS ONE 10(1): e112021. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112021 Open access: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0112021

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