Last week, a senior producer at CBC News, in order to concoct a timely story for ‘Earth Day’, attempted to explain the high number of sightings of polar bears this April in Newfoundland and Labrador, compared to the last two years, as a consequence of climate change and its handmaiden, loss of Arctic sea ice.
Title: ‘With an extinction threat looming, no wonder polar bears are at our door — and on the roof: there’s a grim reason why polar bears have been frequently showing up in coastal communities’. CBC News, 23 April 2022
The problem with this narrative is that the East Coast had much reduced sea ice in 2021 and virtually no polar bear sightings in Newfoundland and none in Labrador. There was more ice in 2020 than 2021 but also few bears. This year, ice extent was similar to 2020 for most of the region but polar bear sightings were up considerably.
In fact, the two years with the most sightings and problems with polar bears since 2008 were 2017 and 2018: in 2017, sea ice was exceptionally thick in April (although average in extent) and by June the sea ice was so thick and enduring that the Newfoundland fishing fleet couldn’t get out for spring openings; 2018 was another year of average sea ice extent and had even an even larger number of sightings than 2017, in Newfoundland especially (Crockford 2019:32). This suggests the sea ice vs. polar bear correlation on the East Coast since 2008 – if there even is one – may be the opposite of that stated in the CBC article: less ice usually means fewer bears onshore in Newfoundland and Labrador and more ice often means more bears.
The article’s premise rests on two opinions: an eight-year old quote from polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher, stating his view on the relationship between sea ice decline and the potential for polar bear population decline, and the opinion of a polar bear guard from the community of Black Tickle (who is a Canadian Ranger, not a scientist), that sightings this year were up because of climate change.
Here is an excerpt:
Polar bears have been stressed with the loss of ice, with some researchers raising concerns for years now about possible extinction.
“It’s clear that, you change the sea ice, you affect the bears,” Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta professor and polar bear authority, told CBC News in 2016.
“There’s only so far that you can push them. At some point there’s just not enough sea ice for them to persist in an area and we would expect them to blink out.”
The crisis affecting polar bears has been playing out before eyes for years, and communities that are closer to the sea ice have been getting used to perennial visitors. Consider Black Tickle, a small fishing community in southern Labrador, not far by sea from St. Anthony.
“I think we’ve had 17, 18 or something come through,” resident Jeffrey Keefe said earlier this month. (It’s happened before; in 2015, Keefe said dealing with polar bears was “like herding cows.“)
It’s obviously a change in ways for humans and bears alike. Keefe related that this season, polar bears have been spotted away from the shoreline. “We’ve had polar bears actually in through the trails, in through the woods, because they’re getting drove ashore in different areas,” he said. [note: in 2015, Keefe made the same observation about bears showing up on local trails in February].
Keefe points to climate change for unpredictable changes in ice.
Sea ice extent in late February 2015 (when Keefe mentions that Black Tickle a similar number of polar bear visits as 2022) was above average, which I pointed out at the time (ice chart below for 25 Feb 2015):
In the 25 February 2015 CBC story about polar bear visits to Black Tickle, Keefe said nothing about climate change:
There were about 12 bears on the island at one time a few years ago, said Keefe.
In the past, bear visits went mostly unnoticed by those outside of Black Tickle, but social media has changed all that.
The word is now out that Black Tickle is a popular destination for polar bears.
Last year, Keefe estimates that 28 bears came through the area.
As Keefe mentioned, Black Tickle had many problem bears in early March 2014, when ice extent off Labrador was also above average (ice chart below for 3 March 2014):
Keefe was also quoted by the CBC in early February 2016 regarding a spate of polar bear problems in several communities along the Labrador coast, including Black Tickle since late January, but that time he blamed the problem on extensive sea ice:
“The only thing I can figure is that there’s a lot of sea ice, so I guess they’re on the move earlier … they just wait around for the sea ice so they can get out to the seals.”
Last year, Keefe estimated 23 bears travelled through the area.
And it was true that ice extent was average for that time of year (end of January 2016):
However, the next day (7 February 2016), the provincial Minister responsible for wildlife in Labrador and Newfoundland, insisted in a radio interview that “…climate change does play a role here“ [in the increased number of sightings].
Later that spring, Derocher chimed in with his climate change message. Several times since then, Mr. Keefe has mentioned climate change to explain polar bear sightings in Labrador. Funny how that works.
Summary of March sea ice vs. polar bear sightings 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021, and 2022
2017, when sea ice extent was about average across the East Coast and there were many sightings of polar bears in Newfoundland and Labrador:
2018, when sea ice was only slightly below average off southern Labrador but there were many sightings of polar bears in Newfoundland especially (although fewer in Labrador):
2020, when sea ice was only slightly below average across the East Coast and there were almost no sightings of polar bears in Newfoundland and Labrador:
2021, when sea ice was well below average on the East Coast (especially off Newfoundland) and there were few (if any) sightings of polar bears in Newfoundland or Labrador:
2022, when sea ice was average for most of the region and there were many sightings of polar bears in Newfoundland and Labrador:
Why was this silly CBC piece even written? The clue was in the last line:
Friday was Earth Day, a day earmarked to look at environmental issues and climate change. It’s hard locally not to connect the dots with shrinking ice caps and sea ice and a species that is struggling to adjust.
At least the article came with this warning:
Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This column is part of a CBC News initiative entitled “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change.
Crockford, S.J. 2019. State of the Polar Bear Report 2018. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 32, London. pdf here.