‘Already too late’ to save Churchill polar bears claim a false NY Times climate change cliché for COP26

Not only is it prime polar bear viewing week in Churchill, Manitoba but it’s the week of the 26th international elite COP climate change gab-fest: every media outlet on the planet is eager to promote climate catastrophe talking points.

Hence totally expected that the New York Times would print someone’s unsupported claim that the polar bears of Churchill (part of the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation) are on the verge of extirpation due to lack of sea ice and other similar nonsense. Also not surprising to find that Canadian government biologist Nick Lunn used the occasion to again offer unpublished and misleading data to a reporter. However, this time it’s good news meant to sound like an emergency: if correct, the data he shared indicate polar bears are heavier now than they were in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“This is not another story about saving Hudson Bay’s polar bears. It’s too late for that. This is a story about what comes next for a small town that bills itself as the Polar Bear Capital of the World.

In Churchill, an isolated town perched on the southern edge of the Arctic, climate change is not a looming danger. It imbues daily life. It is broken sewer lines and taller trees, longer summers and bigger snowstorms and moose where caribou used to go. Most of all, it is the fear that Americans won’t come visit anymore.

...There’s not a lot of sentimentality about polar bears in Churchill. It’s hard to mourn the loss of the bears while they’re ubiquitous. Indeed, many locals say the bears have become bolder and more visible in recent years...

3,000 Miles From Glasgow, a Town and Its Polar Bears Face the Future(Binyamnin Appelbaum, 4 November 2021) [my emphasis].

Too late for the bears” makes it sound like they are already gone. Sorry, an 11% decline in population size is not a death-knell.

The last reported survey for the entire WH subpopulation was done in 2016: it estimated 842 bears for one specific region compared to 949 bears for the same region in 2011. These are the only two survey numbers than can be reliably compared according to the scientists who did the 2016 survey (Dyck et al. 2017). Any apparent decline is not statistically significant, which suggests the population is stable despite what the NYT editorial board author claims. I’ve been told another survey was done in August this year but the results will likely not be out until September or so next year.

Moose where caribou used to go” makes it sound like the caribou are gone. That may count as poetic journalism but it’s nonsense: there is no evidence that Cape Churchill caribou numbers have declined by any amount in recent years. the population is considered stable at about 3,000 animals. There are some moose in the wooded regions of Cape Churchill, for sure, but they are not thriving at the expense of caribou, who prefer the tundra habitat along the coast.

And it would indeed be ‘hard to mourn the loss‘ of polar bear when they are everywhere around Churchill. How silly to imply the bears are so far gone they can’t be saved only to admit a few paragraphs later that the bears are abundant. Back in the 1980s, seeing more bears meant there were more bears; now other excuses need to be made to explain why bears are abundant where they were predicted to be scarce.

Weights of pregnant bears increased since 1990s

The NYTs piece quotes Nick Lunn as saying that the weights of pregnant polar bears declined 15% between 1980 and 2019, which sounds like a worrying statistic. However, a paper by Stirling and Derocher in 2012 (their Fig. 5, copied below) showed the average weight of a pregnant bear in 1980 was about 295 kg. Therefore a 15% loss would be 250.75 kg, which is more than the average for most years in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In other words, the bears were in better shape in 2019 than they were in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Lunn also claimed that “new births are in decline“. However, unless and until the data supporting such a claim are published, it is safe to say it is immaterial. That is, the data might refer to bears from around Churchill but not to the whole of Western Hudson Bay, which is the official subpopulation. Churchill-exclusive data are not applicable to official WH subpopulation science.

Lastly, no one in this piece mentions recent ice conditions. Of course they don’t because although this year has been average for WH polar bears, the six previous years have been excellent – average or shorter than usual ice-free seasons, bears nice and fat.

This has been a great season for polar bear viewing near Churchill, with fewer than usual problem bear reports. There is no ice on the bay for the week of 1 November but that’s normal, as the chart from the Canadian Ice Service shows (below) – no blue or red showing along the west coast means ‘normal’ conditions:

As of today (4 November), there is a bit of new ice forming north of Churchill near Arviat:

I leave you with my message from a couple of years ago:

References

Dyck, M., Campbell, M., Lee, D., Boulanger, J. and Hedman, D. 2017. 2016 Aerial survey of the Western Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation. Final report, Nunavut Department of Environment, Wildlife Research Section, Iglolik, NU. http://www.gov.nu.ca/environnement/information/wildlife-research-reports#polarbear

Stirling, I. and Derocher, A.E. 2012. Effects of climate warming on polar bears: a review of the evidence. Global Change Biology 18:2694-2706. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2012.02753.x

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