Category Archives: History

Amstrup grasps at straws to defend his polar-bears-are-doomed computer model

Polar bear activist Steven Amstrup made an astonishing statement in an interview earlier this week — he insisted that the current rate of warming in the Arctic is greater than anything polar bears have lived through before. He also said that optimistic comments on the future of polar bears made by geneticist Matt Cronin a few weeks ago were “incautious” and “misleading.”

Polar bear cubs in den wikipedia

Previously, I described how a new paper by Cronin and colleagues confirmed that genetic evidence indicates polar bears have been around long enough to have survived several past Interglacial periods that were warmer than today (and therefore, would have had virtually no summer ice). Cronin, not unreasonably, had some critical things to say about computer modeled predictions that polar bears could not survive in an Arctic without summer sea ice.

On Monday, the Anchorage Daily News gave Amstrup a forum to rebuke Cronin for his comments. A similar story was also carried by the Washington Post. [In the same ADN article, geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist, offered an outdated argument against future polar bear survival that I’ll deal with later]

Today, I’ll address Amstrup’s ridiculous assertion that the current rate of warming, attributed by him primarily to human activities rather than natural variation, is something polar bears have never experienced in their evolutionary history (a period of more than 400,000 years!).

Let’s start with the offending portion of the news item (published March 31, 2014):

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Oil money provided the foundation of polar bear research, now its “greenwash”

Much of the polar bear research in Canada and American Arctic in the 1970s-1980s was funded by oil and gas companies, because it was the right thing to do (and governments required it). Now, Greenpeace says providing such money is just oil company marketing, meant to make them look good.

Stirling et al 1993_oil acknowledgement

Stirling et al. 1993, oil funding acknowledgement for work in the Eastern Beaufort Sea.

Oil money helped fund the Ph.D. research of polar bear biologist and Polar Bears International spokesperson Steven Amstrup (Amstrup and Durner 1995), and made possible a number of other critical research projects in the early days of polar bear research that might not have been possible otherwise (Stirling et al. 1993; Stirling and Lunn 1997).

Yesterday, several media reports announced that ExxonMobil had advertised for a job counting polar bears in the Kara Sea (where very little research has been done), but a Greenpeace spokesperson called this an “obvious greenwash.

Have a look at the media reports and the oil funding acknowledgements from polar bear research papers (“References”) and see what you think.

Courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

Courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

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Amstrup’s comment on his starving polar bear article and my response

Steve Amstrup has left a comment below his January 20, 2014 “starving polar bears’ article at The Conversation, which I discussed in my last post.

I’ve copied his comment below and the response to his comment that I left this morning, which is copied below his. See the entire comment sequence here.
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Ancient polar bear skulls looted from Bering Sea graves to be returned

A different kind of polar bear news story caught my eye this morning: “Funerary polar bear skulls may be returned to St. Lawrence Island.”

St. Lawrence Island, Alaska lies just south of the Bering Strait (see map below). It has strong historical ties to Russia but lies within US territory; it also lies within the “Chukchi Sea” polar bear subpopulation region.

St Lawrence island wikipedia marked

The story I found talks of “hundreds of polar bear bones, mostly skulls” that had been excavated from ancient human graves on St. Lawrence Island between 1930 and 1960. Hundreds!

These polar bear skulls and other bones had been stored separately from the carved ivory artifacts and other goodies plundered removed from graves (a formerly common practice). The museum in New York had only recently found them in storage and was preparing to return them, as the law now stipulates.

St. Lawrence Island is an important region for understanding the development of Inuit culture and the history of the Arctic. I could tell you a story about that (based on my peer-reviewed published papers) but I’ll save it for another long winter’s night.

However, my knowledge of the region meant I found the short online summary frustratingly devoid of detail, so I went a’Googling and found that a total of 376 polar bear skulls were involved. Worth the effort, I think – have a look.

[Update evening of December 12, 2013 – I’ve been mulling over in my mind all day whether using the word “looting” in my title (and in the text above, “plundered”) was warranted and decided in the end that it was perhaps not quite fair. To be sure, looting of graves and midden sites has occurred on a massive scale on St. Lawrence Island but Dr. Geist was doing archaeology as it was legally practiced in those days, and he did, on one occasion at least (see below), ask permission of relatives to remove items. Still, the people of St. Lawrence Island may well perceive all of the disturbance of their ancestors graves to be looting or plundering. So, I changed the “plundered” in the text to “removed” but left the title as I wrote it — as a reminder for readers to think about whether or not calling these actions “looting” is unfair.]
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NSIDC says the sea ice minimum in 1964 was not different from 1979, 1981, or 2001

I just came across the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) “monthly highlights” article for April 2013 (Glimpses of sea ice past), which turned out to be a rather more interesting story than it appeared at first glance.

The article chronicles the details of how NSIDC technicians pieced together photos taken by the Nimbus 1 satellite between August 28 and September 23, 1964 – of both the Arctic and the Antarctic – to create an estimate of sea ice extent at September 1964 for both regions. For the Arctic, this was the yearly minimum; for the Antarctic, the yearly maximum.

NSIDC scientist Walt Meier was part of this effort and he and colleagues Gallaher and Campbell recently published their findings in the journal The Cryosphere (Meier et al. 2013). For the Arctic estimate, they had to add in data from Alaskan and Russian sea ice charts because the 1964 satellite data was not complete. This means the ice extent figure they came up with is not a true ‘satellite only’ figure but a composite one.

One of the things they did in their analysis was to place the 1964 value on a graph of the more recent 1979-2012 data, which really helps put it into perspective (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. This is Fig. 7 from the Meier et al. 2013 paper, to which I’ve added labels. Meier et al. call this a “time series of Arctic September sea ice extent.” The estimate for 1964 is the red dot on the far left (with its error bars), which I’ve circled (I also added the red label for 1964 and the black line). Note the Y-axis on the left goes to 3.0 million km2, not zero. The solid blue line is the monthly average for September from passive microwave data (1979-2012), and the blue dashed lines are a “three-day average of the high and low range of daily extents during the month.” The 1964 estimate of 6.90 ± 0.3 million km2 is just about identical to 1979, 1981, and 2001 and well within the average for 1979-2000. However, it’s significantly lower than the previous estimate of 8.28 million km2 for 1964 made by the UK Hadley Centre in 2003 (Meier et al. 2013:704).

Figure 1. This is Fig. 7 from the Meier et al. 2013 paper, to which I’ve added labels. Meier et al. call this a “time series of Arctic September sea ice extent.” The estimate for 1964 is the red dot on the far left (with its error bars), which I’ve circled (I also added the red label for 1964 and the black line). Note the Y-axis on the left goes to 3.0 million km2, not zero. The solid blue line is the monthly average for September from passive microwave data (1979-2012), and the blue dashed lines are a “three-day average of the high and low range of daily extents during the month.” The 1964 estimate of 6.90 ± 0.3 million km2 is just about identical to 1979, 1981, and 2001 and well within the average for 1979-2000. However, Meier and colleagues note it is significantly lower than the previous estimate of 8.28 million km2 for 1964, made by the UK Hadley Centre in 2003.

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Polar bear-sea ice relationships: what biologists knew in ’72

1972 – a bit over 40 years ago. Seven years before we had reliable sea ice extent data from satellites and the year before the international agreement was signed by Arctic nations to protect polar bears from overhunting.

In 1972, a bear biologist by the name of Jack Lentfer was working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, stationed at the Naval Arctic Research Lab in Barrow. Lentfer was one of the founding delegates of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, where he represented US interests until 1981.

In the proceedings of the 1972 PBSG meeting (Lentfer 1972a), Lentfer stated the following in his report to the group:

“Long term warming and cooling trends occur in the Arctic and probably affect polar bear distribution and numbers. Climatic trends should be considered when assessing bear distributions and population data on a long term basis.” [my bold]

Warming and cooling, not just warming.

He also had a paper published that year (Lentfer 1972b), entitled “Polar bear: Sea ice relationships.” Forty years on, I thought it was worth having a look at what Lentfer told his fellow polar bear biologist colleagues back then. Continue reading

The ancient polar bear hunters of Zhokhov Island, Siberia

It’s hard to imagine ancient people successfully hunting polar bears in any numbers – armed as they were with the simplest of bone and stone weapons. Archaeological evidence supports the impression that ancient Arctic hunters rarely took polar bears – there are a few polar bear bones, but not many, in most archaeological sites across the Arctic that were occupied over the last 10,000 years (see my Annotated Map of Ancient Polar Bear Remains of the World).

There is but one exception to this pattern: Zhokhov Island in the East Siberian Sea, Russia (see Fig. 1 below). Almost four hundred polar bear bones were recovered from two of the 13 semi-subterranian houses discovered on the island, well-preserved by permafrost for over 8,200 years. It is by far the largest – and the oldest – collection of polar bear bones left by human hunters anywhere in the world and it is described in a fascinating paper published in 1996 by Vladimir Pitul’ko and Aleksey Kasparov [contact me if you’d like to see it].

Zhokhov Island is situated just above 760N latitude and so has about the same length “winter’s night” as the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya, where William Barents and his crew spent the winter of 1596/97 (see previous post here ) – about 2 months, from early November to early February. The average January temperature today in the archipelago of the New Siberian Islands is −280C to −310C.

The East Siberian Islands are included in the Laptev Sea subpopulation of polar bears, the only Russian region that contributes a count (800-1,200 bears) to the global population estimate, based on an aerial survey conducted in 1993 (see previous post here).

Figure 1. Map of the New Siberian Islands off Siberia, with tiny Zhokhov Island circled. Map from Wikipedia

Figure 1. Map of the New Siberian Islands off Siberia, with tiny Zhokhov Island circled. Map from Wikipedia

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