Before National Geographic apologized for hyping the starving polar bear video they exploited it to promote a message of doom

Back in early February this year, National Geographic used their “this is what climate change looks like” video to promote a newly-published polar bear study and endorse conservation activist Steven Amstrup’s debunked and abandoned prediction of polar bear catastrophe due to global warming. Even with this revelation, the starving polar bear video fiasco is not yet over.

Baffin Island starving pb headline_GlobalNews_8 Dec 2017

Polar Bears Really Are Starving Because of Global Warming, Study Shows (National Geographic, 1 February 2018).

The initial focus of the February 2018 National Geographic article was a study published that week by Anthony Pagano and colleagues (Pagano et al. 2018; Whiteman 2018), suggesting that a few polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea were not getting enough to eat in early spring from 2014-2016 (with no reference to sea ice conditions; see my critique of that study here).

Then, Steven Amstrup, spokesman for activist organization Polar Bears International, is quoted as saying (my bold):

“If these results hold up [from Pagano’s study], then it shows that the loss of sea ice may have a bigger impact on the bears than previously thought, said Amstrup, a former USGS polar bear expert. Amstrup’s own 2010 study projected that continued decline in sea ice would reduce the global population of bears by two thirds, to less than 10,000 by 2050.

Seriously, no one except Amstrup and his Polar Bears International fanbase are citing his outlandish 2010 prediction, which is just a rehash of his 2007 USGS internal report and its 2008 journal version (Amstrup 2007, 2008, 2010). Amstrup’s prediction is not only a failure (Crockford 2017, 2018; Crockford and Geist 2018) but it’s been abandoned by his colleagues for vaguer or more moderate predictions of population decline (e.g. Atwood et al. 2015, 2016; Regehr et al. 2016).

National Geographic has now apologized for saying that the emaciated bear in the SeaLegacy video they so heavily promoted was “what climate change looks like” (and replaced the caption with “this is what starvation looks like,” even though there is no evidence the bear was starving from lack of food rather than from severe illness).

But the damage is done. By endorsing the discredited polar bear survival predictions of Amstrup along with the video, National Geographic degraded itself even further in the eyes of rational and informed readers. I’ll have more to say on the SeaLegacy video exploited by National Geographic and its message that starving polar bears are victims of climate change in a subseqent post: we haven’t yet reached the end of this debacle.

References

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

Amstrup, S.C., Marcot, B.G., Douglas, D.C. 2008. A Bayesian network modeling approach to forecasting the 21st century worldwide status of polar bears. Pgs. 213-268 in Arctic Sea Ice Decline: Observations, Projections, Mechanisms, and Implications, E.T. DeWeaver, C.M. Bitz, and L.B. Tremblay (eds.). Geophysical Monograph 180. American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/180GM14/summary and http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/polar_bears/pubs.html

Atwood, T.C., Marcot, B.G., Douglas,D.C., Amstrup, S.C., Rode, K.D., Durner, G.M. and Bromaghin, J.F. 2015. Evaluating and ranking threats to the long-term persistence of polar bears. USGS Open-File Report 2014–1254. Pdf here.

Atwood, T.C., Marcot, B.G., Douglas, D.C., Amstrup, S.C., Rode, K.D., Durner, G.M. et al. 2016. Forecasting the relative influence of environmental and anthropogenic stressors on polar bears. Ecosphere, 7(6), e01370.

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 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3

Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. pdf here.

Crockford, S.J. and Geist, V. 2018. Conservation Fiasco. Range Magazine, Winter 2017/2018, pg. 26-27. Pdf here.

Pagano, A.M., Durner, G.M., Rode, K.D., Atwood, T.C., Atkinson, S.N., Peacock, E., Costa, D.P., Owen, M.A. and Williams, T.M. 2018. High-energy, high-fat lifestyle challenges an Arctic apex predator, the polar bear. Science 359 (6375): 568 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan8677

Whiteman, J.P. 2018. Out of balance in the Arctic. Science 359 (6375):514-515. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6375/514

Sea ice silly season: Wadhams spouts fake facts about polar bears of northern Greenland

As the seasonal minimum for Arctic sea ice approaches, the media get carried away by hyperbole. Tha’t been true since 2007. This year, other outlets will need to work hard to beat yesterday’s bit of nonsense from The Independent trying to out-do The Guardian: it not only includes false polar bear facts (from sea ice researcher Peter Wadhams) but leads with last year’s controversial SeaLegacy video of an emaciated polar bear. Sea ice silly season has truly begun.

East Greenland Scorsby Sound March 2011 on Kap Tobin_Rune Dietz_press photo

Wadhams (described as “one of the UK’s leading sea ice scientists” although not a particularly respected one) was interviewed about the small area of open water that opened up over the last few days in northern Greenland (see NSIDC photo below), driven by offshore winds (not melt). This region is the eastern-most part of the area that is considered the “last holdout” for Arctic sea ice: an immense band of very thick (4-20m) multiyear ice that stretches across the Arctic Ocean shores of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

The open water is expected to last a few days at most but Wadhams was absolutely breathless with dire warnings of what this might mean for the future of polar bear in the region (about which he knows nothing), rhetoric ramped up even further by the news outlet with quotes from co-director of the Grantham Institute (London), Martin Siegert, and predictions on how low the sea ice minimum might be.

Greenland north open water_13 Aug 2018 NASA_NSIDC 15 Aug 2018 report

Cape Morris Jesup on 13 August 2018. W. Meier, NSIDC/NASA.

I think this is a truly spectacular example of the ignorance of scientists speaking outside their area of expertise used to mislead the public but decide for yourself.

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Busy week for Churchill Polar Bear Alert Program in week 6, more problems than 2017

The Churchill Polar Bear Alert program has been busy in week 6 (Aug.13-19), with 67 occurrences to date: slower than last year but not quite as brisk as 2016. Some bears have already been released from the holding cells of “polar bear jail,” transported outside of Churchill and marked with a green dot to identify them as problem bears to residents of communities further north.

churchill-pb-reports_week-6_-aug-13-19-2018.jpg

Compare the above to other years below, as welll as weeks 4 and 5. Previous weeks here and here.

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Brace yourself: more starving polar bear news stories in the pipeline from Svalbard

A few polar bears have become stranded on small islands north of Svalbard since the local sea ice retreated — of which the bear that mauled a cruise ship guard last month was but one — and if return of the ice is as late as last year, those handful of bears are likely doomed to die of starvation. This is not due to climate change but rather bad judgment on the part of these few bears. They were not forced ashore: if they’d stayed on the ice like the rest of the population, they’d have likely been just fine.

Daily Mail stranded bear headline_3 Aug 2018 all

Similar to the bear in northwestern Hudson Bay that fatally mauled a young father in early July, these bears were likely lured ashore by the prospect of masses of bird eggs present on island rookeries. But they overstayed their window of opportunity and the ice retreated without them.

Fledgling birds and bird eggs are not replacements for seals in a bear’s diet but when the season of easy seal kills winds down, as it does in late spring, easy-picking sea bird eggs may be enticing enough to lure a few bears ashore when they’d be better off on the ice.

That is not the fault of climate change.

Unlike bears in Hudson Bay and many other regions — including the Lancaster Sound area of Canada where the National Geographic “starving” bear was filmed last summer — these bears were not forced ashore by retreating ice: they chose to do so.
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Brian Ladoon, saviour of Canadian Eskimo Dogs, has died in Churchill

Early on Sunday 5 August 2018, Brian Ladoon died at the age of 65 in Churchill, Manitoba — and so far, the media have said nothing. Brian dedicated his life to the preservation of the Canadian Eskimo Dog — which often attracted polar bears to his property — but he was also an accomplished artist.

Ladoon and husky_Norbert Rosing obituary 6 Aug 2018

In the early days, (Norbert Rosing photo.

As a lover of Arctic dogs, I remember hearing of Brian’s work decades ago but only that “someone” was working hard to save the breed. I never dreamed I’d come to know so much more about his work through my research on polar bear ecology and evolution.

I never met the man. But he has clearly been an icon of Churchill for decades and because of that, the place will not be the same without him. He is on the right in the photo below, for the TV series “Polar Bear Town” that ran in 2015 (some episodes below).

Polar Bear Town premiere Sept 22 2015

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Polar bears do not outnumber people in Svalbard and the backlash against ecotourism over a justified defensive kill

It is often said that there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, Norway (see BBC, “Polar bear shot dead after attacking cruise ship guard29 July 2018). But that isn’t true now and probably hasn’t been for a very long time. This pseudo-fact (a misunderstanding made by tourism promoters) continues to be quoted as the story about the Svalbard polar bear shot by a cruise ship bear guard last week evolves in the online and print media. The media continue to focus on social media backlash against ecotourism, which is nothing like the pushback about the starving polar video from last year.

Svalbard dead bear_Gustav Busch Arntsen_Governor of Svalbard_NTB Scanpix via AP 28 July 2018

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Churchill problem polar bear report for week 3, July 23-29 2018

Polar bears that have come off the sea ice of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba in Western Hudson Bay are apparently in a wide variety of conditions, from very fat to skinny.  So, not all skinny despite the relatively early breakup of ice in the northwest.

Churchill PB reports_week 3_ July 23-29_July 2018

Most of the ice was gone from the NW of Hudson Bay for the week of 23 July 2018 and the graph below shows that this is a new pattern that began in 1997, with only 2009 being an outlier:

Hudson Bay NW same week_ ice coverage 23 July 1971-2018 with trend

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