New report: Change coming to the Canadian Arctic — but it’s no looming catastrophe

A review of a newly-released (22 April 2020, on Earth Day) report commissioned by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the state of the Arctic seas published today in the National Post is a must read. It highlights the report’s emphasis that while the changes going on in our northern seas are indeed marked, they do not necessarily spell doom.

2019 DFO Arctic Report_Polar Bears from Summary document sent to media

Oddly, polar bears are primarily represented in the report by an overview account of the special case of Western Hudson Bay – an outlier among Canadian subpopulations – that puts special emphasis on the claimed decline in body condition blamed on recent sea ice changes that is not supported by any recent data (Crockford 2020).

Here is a taste of the essay by Terence Corcoran (29 April 2020), my bold:

Niemi said during my interview that the report was not intended to be a forecasting document. Instead, through 190 pages based on the work of more than 50 federal researchers, the report cautiously portrays the vast Arctic region of Canada as something of an unknown planet ready to be discovered.

The 30-page public summary of the report, Canada’s Oceans New: Arctic Ecosystems, repeatedly notes that scientific understanding of the region is limited and “filled with major gaps” that need to be filled.

Rather than portray the Canadian Arctic as a collapsing ecosystem facing climate disaster and species extinction, the report serves as a basis for serious science and social research into a dynamic non-static ever-changing environment. “The Arctic, on a global scale, is changing but the type and speed of changes are not the same in all locations.

Understanding the state of Canadian Arctic ecosystems is necessary to explain and manage present conditions and future changes. The state of an ecosystem describes conditions in a specific location — both the normal conditions and how they change over time.”

The public report is not an alarmist call for action to save a collapsing frozen, pristine environmental stereotype. The fact is that little is known about the Canadian Arctic and there is much to learn. “There has been little long-term, sustained scientific monitoring of ocean conditions and species in Canada’s Arctic. As a result, scientific evidence is limited to identify, explain and predict ecosystem changes across the Canadian Arctic.”

The report is a welcome cool-headed antidote to the sensational portrayal of the Arctic as a melting disaster that’s killing polar bears. As Niemi put it during our interview, “the Arctic is characterized as being very different from year to year. Those differences are normal. I think that’s something important in scientific and Inuit knowledge.”

Read the rest here. Other views on the report can be found here and here (US media apparently found the topic uninteresting).

2019 DFO Key Findings location map figure 1

I’ve had a quick look at the report (it’s 189 pages long, with 44 co-authors; the summary is 30 pages). Its focus is describing current conditions and does seem to largely resist prediction. Regarding the status of polar bear subpopulations in Canada, this report oddly cites the 2016 IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group report that reflects the pessimistic American view of the topic (Durner et al. 2018) rather than the more nuanced 2018 COSEWIC report produced by Canadian biologists (discussed in Crockford 2020).

The report also highlights the status of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation, including the claim a decline in numbers professed to be a response to less summer sea ice, but does not mention the Kane Basin survey that showed a marked increase in population size in response to a similar decline in ice (SWG 2016). Also conspicuous by its absence is the overview report on Canadian polar bear status that included Inuit traditional knowledge (York et al. 2016).

The WH polar bear ‘case study’ provided (written Evan Richardson) repeats the oft-cited ‘decline in body condition caused by reduced sea ice’ claim, and cites as support a single decades-old paper (Stirling et al. 1999). That paper also falsely predicted polar bears would be devastated by declining sea ice based on documented declines in body condition that had been underway before sea ice declined (Crockford 2019). However, the ‘case study’ cites no recent evidence because, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, there is none: data on body condition has not been published since 2004 (Crockford 2019, 2020).


COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). 2018. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Polar Bear Ursus maritimus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. PDF here.

Crockford, S.J. 2019. The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London. Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Crockford, S.J. 2020. State of the Polar Bear Report 2019. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 39, London. PDF here.

Durner, G.M., Laidre, K.L, and York, G.S. (eds). 2018. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 18th Working Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, 7–11 June 2016, Anchorage, Alaska. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN. Pdf here.

Niemi, A., Ferguson, S., Hedges, K., Melling, H., Michel, C., Ayles, B., Azetsu-Scott, K., Coupel, P., Deslauriers, D., Devred, E., Doniol-Valcroze, T., Dunmall, K., Eert, J., Galbraith, P., Geoffroy, M., Gilchrist, G., Hennin, H., Howland, K., Kendall, M., Kohlbach, D., Lea, E., Loseto, L., Majewski, A., Marcoux, M., Matthews, C., McNicholl, D., Mosnier, A., Mundy, C.J., Ogloff, W., Perrie, W., Richards, C., Richardson, E., Reist, R., Roy, V., Sawatzky, C., Scharffenberg, K., Tallman, R., Tremblay, J-É., Tufts, T., Watt, C., Williams, W., Worden, E., Yurkowski, D., Zimmerman, S. 2019. State of Canada’s Arctic Seas. Can. Tech. Rep. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 3344: xv + 189 p. PDF here, Summary document here, called “Canada’s Oceans Now: Arctic Ecosystems” but no authors are provided. A separate document of only the ‘case studies’ is here and the ‘Infographics’ are found here.

Stirling, I., Lunn, N. J., and Iacozza, J. 1999. Long-term trends in the population ecology of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay in relation to climatic change. Arctic 52: 294–306. doi: 10.14430/arctic935.

SWG [Scientific Working Group to the Canada-Greenland Joint Commission on Polar Bear]. 2016. Re-Assessment of the Baffin Bay and Kane Basin Polar Bear Subpopulations: Final Report to the Canada-Greenland Joint Commission on Polar Bear. +636 pp.

York, J., Dowsley, M., Cornwell, A., Kuc, M. and Taylor, M. 2016. Demographic and traditional knowledge perspectives on the current status of Canadian polar bear subpopulations. Ecology and Evolution 6(9):2897-2924. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.2030

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