Polar bears became global warming icons because biologists promoted a narrative of doom since 1999: it didn’t happen ‘by accident’

The polar bear became an ‘accidental icon’ of climate change“, claims a recent CBC Radio interview with ardent global warming promoter and polar bear catastrophist Andrew Derocher. Derocher’s insistence that the polar bear became a climate change icon “by accident” is historical revisionism. While such a statement may be attractive now that polar bears are not dying in droves as he and his colleagues predicted in 2007, that doesn’t make it true.

In the summer of 1999, polar bear biologist Ian Stirling helped produce a short doomsday film spectacular for the biggest news outlet in Canada at the time, in which he hyped his ‘climate warming’ fears about Hudson Bay polar bears, yet we are expected to believe Derocher that on September 4, 2000, Time Magazine put polar bears on its “Arctic Meltdown” cover because they ‘just happened’ to hear about an academic paper Stirling had written the year before.

From the CBC Radio interview, posted 27 August 2022 [my bold]:

Biologist Andrew Derocher wasn’t thinking of climate change when he first started studying polar bears in Hudson Bay in the 1980s. About a decade into his career, a picture started to emerge: as sea ice diminished due to human-caused global warming, the polar bears he was studying were venturing onto land earlier and returning to the ice later in the season.

It didn’t take long for the world to notice, and soon the research was picked up by media, conservation groups and climate deniers alike, he said, turning the polar bear into an icon of a warming world, for better or worse. 

“Polar bears were just an early harbinger of change,” Derocher said.

“It didn’t take long for the world to notice”. No mention here of the fact that in the summer of 1999, Ian Stirling (Derocher’s Ph.D. supervisor) arranged for a team of CBC reporters to accompany himself and colleague Nick Lunn during their tagging of Western Hudson Bay bears. Stirling”s paper that attempted to link poor polar bear survival to sea ice loss had been just been published in January that year. Perhaps someone from the CBC just happened to be reading that particular scientific journal and saw his paper, or perhaps Stirling just happened to make a phone call and gave them a heads-up, especially when sea ice breakup came earlier than expected that summer.

The ensuing video feature (originally called “The shrinking polar bears of Hudson Bay”, now “Climate change threatens polar bears”, see link below), was shown on CBC television’s nightly news program (The National) on the 23rd of September, and was probably picked up by other news outlets around the world. I wrote about this news feature in 2015. It included Stirling voicing his dire warning that these polar bears would soon disappear if “the climate keeps on warming” and the narrator called polar bears ‘sentinels’ of global warming everywhere.

That was 1999, remember: Stirling’s fears were based only on a just-published academic paper (Stirling et al. 1999) that showed a statistically-insignificant declining trend sea ice coverage for Western Hudson Bay.

The News Feature: Climate change threatens polar bears

Broadcast date 23 September 1999, Duration 16:40 Disappearing ice in Hudson Bay in 1999 means polar bears can’t build up their fat reserves and nourish their young. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1630724983/

In the summer of 1999, WH sea ice breakup came earlier than it had ever done since 1979 (Castro de la Guardia et al. 2017, see graph below) and Stirling took that opportunity to hype his new theory to the media. He could have quietly collected more data to support his ideas but instead he cooperated with the CBC to relay his worst fears in the most alarming, emotionally-laden terms possible.

Note that in recent years there may have been another ‘step-change’ of Hudson Bay sea ice coverage back to pre-1995 levels, something Derocher also did not mention in his interview.

The basis for the Stirling hype and its consequences

What Derocher failed to explain to the CBC Radio host that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ian Stirling was struggling to explain why polar bear survival in Western Hudson Bay in the 1980s (especially 1983) had taken such a nose-dive (Derocher 1991; Derocher and Stirling 1992, 1995; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997) or that he and Derocher (his student at the time) embraced climate scientist James Hansen’s notion of human-caused global warming and expeditiously dropped their previous explanation that the population was approaching carrying capacity — even though it fit their observations perfectly. Both researchers had to have known that asking the government for research grants to document this new ‘climate warming’ threat to polar bear survival would be more likely to get funded than a request to study polar bears reaching a peak of abundance (Crockford 2019).

1983 was a worrying year for polar bear biologists working in Western Hudson Bay: this female weighed only 99kg when captured that year. Many others were in similar condition, a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen since, yet sea ice breakup had not been earlier than usual.

Derocher also fails to mention the fact that polar bear specialists so hated the ‘least concern’ Red List classification the bears were given by the IUCN in 1996 after their swift recovery from over-hunting (achieved through international treaty protection) that these science-trained advocates — encouraged by Stirling and egged on by aggressive conservation organizations — worked tirelessly to create an apparent connection between predictions of declining sea ice due to global warming and a possible future threat to polar bear health and survival (Crockford 2019).

By 2006, polar bear biologists got the IUCN classification changed back to ‘vulnerable’ based on predictions of future sea ice loss due to human-caused global warming and by 2008 were successful in having the bears classified as ‘threatened’ on the US Endangered Species List, also based on future threats due to human-caused global warming (Stirling and Derocher 2007). This had never been done for any other animal by either agency and none of it would have been possible without the scientific studies undertaken expressly to support this agenda.

In other words, far from being “accidental”, polar bear specialists (and Ian Stirling in particular) used the fledgling global warming agenda for their own ends: they employed emotionally manipulative narratives about starving and dying animals to boost funding for their field and ensure their job security. Polar bear specialists fed the climate change beast by providing it with an icon, and then sat back to reap the rewards. I have no doubt Ian Stirling knew exactly what the media and climate activists would do with that short documentary for the CBC back in 1999.

Footnote: My conclusion from a 2018 post on Stirling and Derocher’s early work in Western Hudson Bay:

When Stirling and Derocher wrote their speculative 1993 paper describing what might happen if global warming caused sea ice breakup to come earlier than usual they did not cite Hansen et al. 1988. However, they did cite Parkinson and Kellogg 1979, a report on one of the first models of sea ice decline predicted by increased CO2 (Stirling went on to co-author a paper with Parkinson in 2006) and Etkin 1991, which discussed how rising air temperatures from CO2-driven “climate warming” might affect breakup dates for Hudson Bay. Stirling continued to use the phrase “climate warming” rather than global warming or climate change in subsequent papers and essays.

Derocher may not have been totally on board with blaming global warming for productivity changes, as his papers on Svalbard area bears that were published soon after (e.g. Derocher 2005; Derocher and Wiig 2002) discuss only density dependent effects. But he was clearly convinced enough by early 1992 to co-author a speculative paper on the topic with his former PhD supervisor (Stirling and Derocher 1993).

However, the paper Stirling and colleagues published in 1999 (without Derocher) was a pivotal piece of work:  it marked the end of two decades of scientific frustration trying to understand documented fluctuations in polar bear population dynamics and the beginning of an era of simply ignoring critical ecological factors [i.e. sea ice thickness and snow cover on Hudson Bay ice; ringed seal abundance] that were poorly understood in favour of blaming the new climate change scapegoat.

References

Castro de la Guardia, L., Myers, P.G., Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J., Terwisscha van Scheltinga, A.D. 2017. Sea ice cycle in western Hudson Bay, Canada, from a polar bear perspective. Marine Ecology Progress Series 564: 225–233. http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v564/p225-233/

Crockford, S.J. 2015. The Arctic Fallacy: Sea Ice Stability and the Polar Bear. Global Warming Policy Foundation Briefing Paper 16. London. Pdf here. Available at http://www.thegwpf.org/susan-crockford-the-arctic-fallacy-2/

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

Derocher, A.E. 1991. Population dynamics and ecology of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Ph.D. Thesis, Univ. Alberta, Edmonton.

Derocher 2005. Population ecology of polar bears at Svalbard, Norway. Population Ecology 47:267-275.
http://www.springerlink.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/content/765147518rp35613/fulltext.pdf

Derocher, A.E. and Stirling, I. 1992. The population dynamics of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. pg. 1150-1159 in D. R. McCullough and R. H. Barrett, eds. Wildlife 2001: Populations. Elsevier Sci. Publ., London, U.K.

Abstract. Reproductive output of polar bears in western Hudson Bay declined through the 1980’s from higher levels in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Age of first reproduction increased slightly and the rate of litter production declined from 0.45 to 0.35 litters/female/year over the study, indicating that the reproductive interval had increased. Recruitment of cubs to autumn decreased from 0.71 to 0.53 cubs/female/year. Cub mortality increased from the early to late 1980’s. Litter size did not show any significant trend or significant annual variation due to an increase in loss of the whole litter. Mean body weights of females with cubs in the spring and autumn declined significantly. Weights of cubs in the spring did not decline, although weights of both female and male cubs declined over the study. The population is approximately 60% female, possibly due to the sex-biased harvest. Although estimates of population size are not available from the whole period over which we have weight and reproductive data, the changes in reproduction, weight, and cub mortality are consistent with the predictions of a density dependent response to increasing population size. [my bold]

Derocher, A.E. and Stirling, I. 1995. Temporal variation in reproduction and body mass of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73:1657-1665. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/z95-197

Derocher, A.E. and Wiig, Ø. 2002. Postnatal growth in body length and mass of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) at Svalbard. Journal of Zoology London 256:343-349.

Etkin, D.A. 1991. Break-up in Hudson Bay: its sensitivity to air temperatures and implications for climate warming. Climatological Bulletin 25(1):21–34.

Hansen, J., Fung, I, Lacis, A, Rind, D, Lebedeff, S. Reudy, R. and Russell, G. 1988. Global climate changes as forecast by Goddard Institute for Space Studies three-dimensional model. Journal of Geophysical Research 93 (D8):9341-9364.

Lunn, N.J., Servanty, S., Regehr, E.V., Converse, S.J., Richardson, E. and Stirling, I. 2016. Demography of an apex predator at the edge of its range – impacts of changing sea ice on polar bears in Hudson Bay. Ecological Applications 26(5): 1302-1320. DOI: 10.1890/15-1256

Parkinson,C.L. and Kellogg, W.W. 1979. Arctic sea ice decay simulated for a CO2-induced temperature rise. Climatic Change 2(2):149-162. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00133221

Ramsay, M.A. and Stirling, I. 1988. Reproductive biology and ecology of female polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Journal of Zoology London 214:601-624. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1988.tb03762.x/abstract

Stirling, I. 2002. Polar bears and seals in the eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf: a synthesis of population trends and ecological relationships over three decades. Arctic 55 (Suppl. 1):59-76. http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/issue/view/42

Stirling and Derocher 1993. Possible impacts of climatic warming on polar bears. Arctic 46(3):240-245. Open access https://arctic.journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/article/view/1348

Stirling, I. and Derocher, A.E. 2007. Melting Under Pressure The Wildlife Professional, Fall: 24-27, 43. pdf here.

Stirling, I. and Lunn, N.J. 1997. Environmental fluctuations in arctic marine ecosystems as reflected by variability in reproduction of polar bears and ringed seals. In Ecology of Arctic Environments, Woodin, S.J. and Marquiss, M. (eds), pg. 167-181. Blackwell Science, UK.

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 climate change. Arctic 52:294-306. http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/article/view/935/960

Stirling, I. and Parkinson, C.L. 2006. Possible effects of climate warming on selected populations of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic 59:261-275. http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/issue/view/16.

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