New paper asks: Has recent sea ice loss caused polar bear populations to crash?

A paper published today finds that predictions of polar bear population crashes due to summer sea ice loss are based on a scientifically unfounded assumption.

crockford-2017-title-page-graphic

[The graphic above was created by me from the title page and two figures from the paper]

Specifically, this paper of mine addresses the basic premise upon which predicted population declines linked to modeled habitat loss made by polar bear specialists back in 2006 and 2008 (by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, USFWS), and concludes that when assessed as a testable hypothesis against data collected since then, it must be rejected.

The forum for this paper is PeerJ Preprints,  which I found while looking for recent research papers about ringed seals. I discovered that Canadian ringed seal biologist Steven Ferguson recently used this service, which is free, open access, accepts review commentary, and will show up on Google and Google Scholar searches.

Ferguson et al. 2016. Demographic, ecological and physiological responses of ringed seals to an abrupt decline in sea ice availability. DOI:10.7287/peerj.preprints.2309v1 Pdf here. https://peerj.com/preprints/2309/

I decided that if this publication forum was good enough for Ferguson and his Arctic research community, it was good enough for me.

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/  (pdf here).


Since my paper addresses a controversial topic, I considered publication in a peer-reviewed journal to be a long shot – but I tried.

Before submission to PeerJ Preprints, this paper had been through two rounds of peer-review at two different scientific journals but was ultimately rejected. A third journal rejected the paper without review. This wasn’t a big surprise but was still discouraging.

So, I have incorporated all pertinent reviewer comments and suggestions, added a few recent references, and present the final result as this PeerJ Preprint so that all readers may evaluate the argument for themselves without gate-keeper interference.

See what you think.

ABSTRACT
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) was the first species to be classified as threatened with extinction based on predictions of future conditions rather than current status. These predictions were made using expert-opinion forecasts of population declines linked to modeled habitat loss – first by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List in 2006, and then by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), based on data collected to 2005 and 2006, respectively. Both assessments predicted significant population declines of polar bears would result by mid-century as a consequence of summer sea ice extent reaching 3-5 mkm2 on a regular basis: the IUCN predicted a >30% decline in total population, while the USFWS predicted the global population would decline by 67% (including total extirpation of ten subpopulations within two vulnerable ecoregions).

Biologists involved in these conservation assessments had to make several critical assumptions about how polar bears might be affected by future habitat loss, since sea ice conditions predicted to occur by 2050 had not occurred prior to 2006. However, summer sea ice declines have been much faster than expected: low ice levels not expected until mid-century (about 3-5 mkm2) have occurred regularly since 2007. Realization of predicted sea ice levels allows the ‘sea ice decline = population decline’ assumption for polar bears to be treated as a testable hypothesis.

Data collected between 2007 and 2015 reveal that polar bear numbers have not declined as predicted and no subpopulation has been extirpated. Several subpopulations expected to be at high risk of decline have remained stable and at least one showed a marked increase in population size over the entire period. Another at-risk subpopulation was not counted but showed marked improvement in reproductive parameters and body condition with less summer ice.

As a consequence, the hypothesis that repeated summer sea ice levels of below 5 mkm2 will cause significant population declines in polar bears is rejected, a result that indicates the ESA and IUCN judgments to list polar bears as threatened based on future risks of habitat loss were hasty generalizations that were scientifically unfounded and that similar predictions for Arctic seals and walrus may be likewise flawed. The lack of a demonstrable ‘sea ice decline = population decline’ relationship for polar bears also invalidates updated survival model outputs that predict catastrophic population declines should the Arctic become ice-free in summer.

Cite this paper as:

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/

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