How is widespread use of helicopters to study polar bears defensible in a warming world?

If all of us should be doing “everything possible” to stop climate change, why is it still OK–15 years after polar bears were declared threatened with extinction because of predicted climate change effects–for researchers across the Arctic to use helicopters to study polar bears? Aircraft that consume massive amounts of aviation fuel and engine oils, otherwise known as ‘fossil fuels.’

Money quote: “…the lifeblood of most polar bear research is jet fuel needed by helicopters.” (Derocher 2012:107).

From Hudson Bay and the High Arctic in Canada, the Beaufort Sea off Alaska, to Svalbard in Norway (above, from 2015), polar bear research is impossible without helicopters powered by fossil fuels. This has been true since the 1980s (e.g. Ramsy and Stirling 1988). And this doesn’t even take into account the fossil fuel-powered fixed wing aircraft needed in some locations, commercial airline flights that transport personnel and equipment to distant locations, or the Tundra buggies used in Churchill (Western Hudson Bay) to get up close to bears and educate indoctrinate the tourists.

USFWS in the Beaufort Sea 2001, Amstrup photo.

If there is such an indisputable correlation between human-caused CO2 and sea ice decline that the total collapse of polar bear populations can be predicted with certainty (Molnár et al. 2020), why bother with these energy-intensive studies? If researchers are so sure what will befall polar bears under a “business as usual” approach to CO2, how can they possibly justify the ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions their own work adds to the problem?

Western Hudson Bay research 2023, Derocher photo.

Why not leave the polar bears to their inevitable fate and engage in some other form of research that doesn’t contribute so dramatically to the damage they insist is being done?

Is it possible polar bear biologists know in their hearts, because of their own data, that the damage being done is not as bad as they claim?

Or is it that they consider their work to be so much more important than anyone else’s job that their contribution to the climate change problem should be discounted?

Funny how journalists never ask these kinds of questions. Governments around the world are planning to ban gasoline powered cars, which millions of people depend upon to get to their jobs but no one, it seems, talks about the hypocrisy in Arctic research.

USFWS Beaufort/Chukchi Sea 2009, Rode photo


Derocher, A.E. 2012. Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Behavior. Photographs by Wayne Lynch, in association with Polar Bears International. Johns Hopkins University Press. [see my review here]

Molnár, P.K., Bitz, C.M., Holland, M.M., et al. 2020. Fasting season length sets temporal limits for global polar bear persistence. Nature Climate Change

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