A new Sir David Attenborough-narrated BBC six-part documentary, Frozen Planet II, has just hit TV audiences in the UK with a fresh litany of sob stories about Arctic and Antarctic animals designed to amplify the ‘save the planet’ rhetoric that Attenborough has been pushing for years, which I described in detail my book published earlier this year, Fallen Icon: Sir David Attenborough and the Falling Walrus Deception. h/t Toby Young.
Filming of Frozen Planet II series began in 2018, which suggests it was part of Attenborough’s relentless ‘climate change’ and ‘tipping point’ messaging agenda that started in 2015 with the inception of the WWF/Netflix ‘Our Planet‘ blockbuster series and the infamous Russian ‘falling walrus’. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the second episode of this new series (‘Frozen Ocean‘) is set to air next week, around the time that Arctic sea ice will reach its lowest extent for the year.
Frozen Planet II: Sunday [11 September], 8pm, BBC One
Penguins! Gerbils! Seals! The fluffiest (and grumpiest) cats in the world! David Attenborough returns with another epic exploration of the world’s frozen regions. One minute you’re screaming at a grizzly bear chasing a muskox calf that’s lost its parents, the next you’re weirdly sad that a polar bear can’t hunt seals because of the melting ice – and this image nails the urgent message in this incredible six-episode series. The frozen wilderness is disappearing at a faster rate than ever before, with the Arctic predicted to see ice-free summers by 2035. Each closeup shot of these amazing animals is a reminder of what the world will lose without taking immediate action. [my bold] Hollie Richardson, The Guardian, 11 September 2022
Summers in the Arctic today bring record-breaking heat. With climate change, it is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. It is predicted that the Arctic Ocean could become ice-free each summer by 2035, raising new challenges for polar bears. [my bold] Episode 2: Frozen Ocean.
The first part of the above snippet sounds like a general description of life in the Arctic for polar bears but it’s not: one of the scenes in this episode was shot in Svalbard (an archipelago east of Greenland, see below), which is decidely not representative of the Arctic in general.
Svalbard has indeed been experiencing warm summers in recent years and this is reflected in the fact that by 2015, summer sea ice extent in the Barents Sea had retreated more than 6 times as much as it had in Southern Hudson Bay, the most southern subpopulation. The charts of summer sea ice decline from 1979-2015 below are from a paper by Eric Regehr and colleagues in 2016:
If the professed correlation between summer sea ice and polar bear health and survival stated by polar bear specialists was correct (e.g. Amstrup et al. 2007; Crockford 2017, 2019, 2022), there should be no bears left in Svalbard. This portion of the Barents Sea subpopulation especially has endured more than a decade of critically low sea ice in summer.
However, despite this dramatic decline in summer sea ice, polar bears in Svalbard are “unexpectedly” thriving, according to one of the polar bear specialists who continuously monitors their condition. During the last population survey in the spring of 2015, bears were found to be in excellent condition and many cubs were counted. As recently as spring 2022, this was still the case and a detailed study published in 2019 had this to say about the health of polar bear females in particular:
“Unexpectedly, body condition of female polar bears from the Barents Sea has increased after 2005, although sea ice has retreated by ∼50% since the late 1990s in the area, and the length of the ice-free season has increased by over 20 weeks between 1979 and 2013. These changes are also accompanied by winter sea ice retreat that is especially pronounced in the Barents Sea compared to other Arctic areas” [Lippold et al. 2019:988]
The answer to the conundrum of polar bear survival in Svalbard is that sea ice in Spring (i.e. April-May), when the bears do most their feeding, is abundant and that has not changed in recent years, as this sea ice area chart for 7 April 2020 shows:
Here is the critical take-home message about polar bears in the Barents Sea:
“Despite the declining sea ice in the Barents Sea, polar bears are likely not lacking food as long as sea ice is present during their peak feeding period.” [Lippold et al. 2019:988]
Wrangel Island/Chukchi Sea
Without sea ice, more and more bears are becoming stranded on remote Arctic islands. It’s a dangerous place to be for a mother bear with cubs, surrounded by larger, predatory males. Episode 2: Frozen Ocean.
The other story about polar bears presented in this series takes place on Wrangel Island, where “…a mother polar bear finds herself stranded on a remote island full of threatening males as she struggles to feed her cubs.” Although the episode hasn’t aired yet, it’s possible to pre-emptively refute the implied narrative of a struggle for survival brought about by human-caused climate change resulting in a sea ice death spiral.
Chukchi Sea polar bears are the other subpopulation that is ‘unexpectedly’ thriving despite recent dramatic declines in summer sea ice and an increase in time spent on land during the summer (Rode and Regehr 2010; Rode et al. 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018). Chukchi Sea polar bears are abundant and in excellent condition. Wrangel Island has always been used as a summer refuge for polar bears when the sea ice retreats during the summer (and a critical denning area for pregnant bears), which means this ‘stranding’ of a mother bear and her cubs is not a new phenomenon.
And while slightly more polar bears have indeed spent about one month more on land during the 2010s, in recent years that pattern has changed. Sea ice along the coast of Chukotka and around Wrangel was very thick last summer and at 1 September this year Wrangel was still surrounded by ice (see below):
The conundrum of polar bears and seals thriving in the Chukchi Sea despite less summer sea ice is explained by the fact that primary productivity has increased since sea ice declined after 2002. Studies have shown that more sunlight reaching open water for longer periods in recent years has meant more food for the entire Arctic food chain and that these effects have been strongest in the Chukchi and Barents Seas (Coupel et al. 2019; Crockford 2021; Frey et al. 2020). More food for fish and seals has meant more food for polar bears in the spring and fatter bears mean more healthy cubs.
In other words, any suggestion in the Frozen Planet II series that Wrangel Island polar bear mothers and cubs might be struggling to survive due to lack of sea ice would not be supported by scientific data.
In conclusion, this series is more deliberate emotional manipulation meant to make viewers amenable to ‘taking action on climate change’ (whether voluntarily or via government edict), as Frozen Planet II executive producer Mark Brownlow told the BBC:
Environmental storytelling is much more engrained in this series. We get the audience invested in our characters, which we then use to communicate the message. Our harp seal sequence in Greenland is a good example. Females abandon their pups at just 12 days old, having introduced them to swimming, so they can breed again. At the point in the sequence that our female leaves her youngster – alone on a small ice floe in the middle of freezing nowhere – you’re emotionally engaged.
Then we reveal the difficult truth: due to climate change, storms are more frequent and the ice is thinning, which means many pups are being blown into the water before they are properly able to cope. It’s heartbreaking.
Never mind that harp seal abundance across the Arctic is at an all-time high because numbers in the NW Atlantic are booming or that a storm or low ice coverage at the wrong time in any year can cause high pup mortality: the BBC/Attenborough agenda demands a certain a message be told about climate change and the people involved are not about to let scientific facts get in their way. This is calculated ‘climate change’ propaganda marketed as ‘entertainment’. Buyer beware.
Amstrup, S.C., Marcot, B.G. & Douglas, D.C. 2007. Forecasting the rangewide status of polar bears at selected times in the 21st century. US Geological Survey. Reston, VA. Pdf here
Coupel, P., Michel, C. and Devred, E. 2019. Case study: The Ocean in Bloom. In State of Canada’s Arctic Seas, Niemi, A., Ferguson, S., Hedges, K., Melling, H., Michel, C., et al. 2019. Canadian Technical Report Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 3344.
Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/
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. 2021. The State of the Polar Bear Report 2020. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 48, London. PDF here.
Crockford, S.J. 2022. The State of the Polar Bear 2021. Global Warming Policy Foundation Note 29, London. pdf here.
Frey, K.E., Comiso, J.C., Cooper, L.W., Grebmeier, J.M. and Stock, L.V. 2020. Arctic Ocean primiary productivity: the response of marine algae to climate warming and sea ice decline. 2020 Arctic Report Card. NOAA. DOI: 10.25923/vtdn-2198 https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2020/ArtMID/7975/ArticleID/900/Arctic-Ocean-Primary-Productivity-The-Response-of-Marine-Algae-to-Climate-Warming-and-Sea-Ice-Decline
Lippold, A., Bourgeon, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder, A., Lyche, J.L., Bytingsvik, J., Jenssen, B.M., Derocher, A.E., Welker, J.M. and Routti, H. 2019. Temporal trends of persistent organic pollutants in Barents Sea polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to changes in feeding habits and body condition. Environmental Science and Technology 53(2):984-995.
Regehr, E.V., Laidre, K.L, Akçakaya, H.R., Amstrup, S.C., Atwood, T.C., Lunn, N.J., Obbard, M., Stern, H., Thiemann, G.W., & Wiig, Ø. 2016. Conservation status of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to projected sea-ice declines. Biology Letters 12: 20160556. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/12/20160556 Supplementary data here.
Rode, K. and Regehr, E.V. 2010. Polar bear research in the Chukchi and Bering Seas: A synopsis of 2010 field work. Unpublished report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, Anchorage. pdf here.
Rode, K.D., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2013. Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Oral presentation by Karyn Rode, 28th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium, March 26-29. Anchorage, AK.
Rode, K.D., Regehr, E.V., Douglas, D., Durner, G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., and Budge, S. 2014. Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations. Global Change Biology 20(1):76-88. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12339/abstract
Rode, K. D., R. R. Wilson, D. C. Douglas, V. Muhlenbruch, T.C. Atwood, E. V. Regehr, E.S. Richardson, N.W. Pilfold, A.E. Derocher, G.M Durner, I. Stirling, S.C. Amstrup, M. S. Martin, A.M. Pagano, and K. Simac. 2018. Spring fasting behavior in a marine apex predator provides an index of ecosystem productivity. Global Change Biology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13933/full
Rode, K.D., Wilson, R.R., Regehr, E.V., St. Martin, M., Douglas, D.C. & Olson, J. 2015. Increased land use by Chukchi Sea polar bears in relation to changing sea ice conditions. PLoS One 10 e0142213.
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