Maclean’s blames global warming for polar bear visits to Newfoundland

Without a shred of evidence, Canada’s Maclean’s magazine claims recent polar bear sightings in Newfoundland and Labrador are due to global warming — and concludes that such incidents are bound to get worse.

Macleans 7 April 2017 polar bear headline with photo_sized

But since it’s likely that polar bear populations in Davis Strait are still increasing (as they were in 2007), Maclean’s might be correct in their prophesy that bear visitations are bound to get worse — just not for the reason they think.

Without any justification or even a quote from an expert, the author of this piece (Meagan Campbell)  blames man-made global warming for recent polar bear visits to Labrador and Newfoundland:

“Since bear sightings in the early winter have been linked to climate change, some parents are more concerned for their future grandchildren.” 

That’s just bad logic. Actually, the fact that global warming has not killed off polar bears as predicted means there are lots of bears to come ashore causing problems in late winter (while they wait for Arctic seal pups to be born, so they can eat them).

For Newfoundland kids, ‘stranger-danger’ includes polar bears Parents are schooling kids in the risks posed by ursine visitors. Good idea, because the bears may soon be arriving in greater numbers” 7 April 2017 online, ahead of May 2017 print issue).

Read it and weep [my bold]; the rest is here:

“Laura Keefe wouldn’t choose to be a helicopter parent. In the Labrador village of Black Tickle, she wishes she could let her children go tobogganing, snowshoeing or walk home from school at lunch. She’d like to allow her 15-year-old daughter to wander to a friend’s house up the road, and when her youngest kids, 6 and 11, play in the backyard, Keefe would rather not stand guard on the porch. “But with polar bears around,” she says, “we just don’t feel safe.”

Each spring, polar bears search for food in towns in southern Labrador and cross ice floes to the island of Newfoundland, venturing as far south as Wesleyville, 125kms north of St. John’s. Residents are documenting the sightings with cameras, lighting up social media with photos of a bear ripping a seat off a snowmobile, another inspecting a cross near a church, and another swinging in a net beneath a helicopter as it was airlifted off an island. Although parents in rural Newfoundland and Labrador like to let their children roam free, not fearing the typical crimes that happen in cities, for a period each spring, they must raise them in the face of a stranger danger.

“[The bears] will come to your window with their paws up against your window, watching you cook,” says Keefe, describing an incident last year. “That’s traumatizing.”

Polar bears haven’t hurt children in Labrador—the most recent attack in the province was in 2013 [SJC: an event that occurred in early summer], when a bear pulled a seasoned hiker from his tent in the Torngat Mountains. But Black Tickle, located on Labrador’s southeast coast, has recorded more than 20 sightings this year, and other parents are being even more protective. Crystal Dyson has a 13-year-old son, Nolan, who has autism. Nolan has done a polar bear safety course, and when the town needs to scare away a bear using noisy vehicles, Dyson personally gets on her snowmobile. “I chase them down with Canadian Rangers to drive them out of the community,” she says.

Even if polar bears aren’t injuring kids, they are a bad influence. They can draw young people on Ski-Doos to follow them out onto the ice. Tim Rumbolt, owner of Cloud 9 Boat Charters and Tours in St. Mary’s, Nfld., explains, “parents are fighting to death to keep their kids from going out on the ice for an adventure.” [SJC: kids going on the ice for adventure is quite a different story from polar bears ‘luring’ kids into dangerous situations]

Social scientists find that rural parents don’t tend to monitor their children like urban parents do. However, Catherine Ratelle, a professor at Laval University who holds the Canadian Research Chair on parenting, notes that rural parents can become hyper protective due to “punctual events.” And such events can include the arrival of Arctic predators.

“I tell kids to go home,” says Jeffrey Keefe, leader of the Canadian Rangers in Black Tickle. “A lot of them don’t be allowed out.” When kids see him with a rifle, they often follow him on their snowmobiles to watch the action. He recently switched to carrying a small flare: “I can keep it in my pocket so that people don’t know I’m going after a polar bear.”

Since bear sightings in the early winter have been linked to climate change, some parents are more concerned for their future grandchildren. “If this is going to continue, one of the things we’ll have to teach children is to pay attention to news bulletins and things like that, and to avoid conflict with a polar bear,” says Ernest Simms, mayor of St. Anthony’s, Nfld., where a bear was hit by a snow plow last week, while another was spotted near an RV park. Polar bears have always roamed southern Labrador in the spring, but climate change may bring them out earlier in the winter. “I will teach my grandchildren how to move away from [them],” says Simms.

Moving away from a bear isn’t always possible—not for people on small islands. The community of St. Brendan’s, on Cottell Island, not far from Wesleyville, had to call provincial wildlife services to airlift a polar bear back to the mainland. Valerie Broomfield, the mayor, says if they hadn’t removed the bear, “a lot of people would be afraid to go to bed.”

Why on earth would climate change bring fat bears onshore in early winter? No one except myself has suggested a reason backed by evidence (here and here), rather than a glib statement backed up by…nothing. It’s also possible the relentless storms that hit Newfoundland and Labrador, one after the other in March (see here and here), has encouraged more bears to hang out closer to shore than usual this year.

Sea ice has been only slightly below average this year and last (see charts below for early March for southern Labrador (when most polar bear visits occurred), and late March for Newfoundland):

Labrador south_same week 5 March 1971-2017Newfoundland East_same week Hudson Bay 26 March 1971-2017

If the polar bears that have been coming ashore this winter and spring in Labrador and Newfoundland were desperately thin and hungry, people onshore would be right to be very worried and might have a reason to blame something (like declining sea ice due to global warming). But the bears were not thin — all of the bears photographed or described were fat and healthy.

And while it’s true that even fat bears go looking for food, well-fed bears are often easily deterred. I suggest Maclean’s should be reminding readers that Newfoundlanders should be thankful those recent polar bear visitors weren’t really, really hungry (as they are in my novel, EATEN).

If you want a sense of how this season of the polar bear in Newfoundland could have gone if the large number of bears that came ashore had been intent on hunting people, read the book — it will scare your socks off.


It’s true fat bears have been coming onshore in late winter (particularly last year and this year) in Labrador and Newfoundland (as well as other places around the Arctic, like Greenland and Svalbard) but there is no evidence whatsoever that this phenomenon is linked to changes in climate or sea ice — except that a single politician (Newfoundland minister for wildlife Perry Trimper) said so last year.

But Maclean’s didn’t quote this politician or anyone else who laid the blame for bears ashore in winter on global warming. They simply stated it as fact. So while I have no evidence that Maclean’s is basing their opinion on Trimper’s incoherent statement from last year (which I  challenged at the time), I also have no knowledge of anyone else making a similar statement.

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