Tag Archives: Baffin Island

The truth behind the Baffin Bay starving polar bear video is worse than we thought

Remember that video of an emaciated Baffin Island Somerset Island polar bear that went viral last December?1 In an unexpected follow-up (“Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong“; National Geographic, August 2018 issue), photographer Cristina Mittermeier makes some astonishing admissions that might just make you sick.

Baffin Island starving pb headline_GlobalNews_8 Dec 2017

It turns out they didn’t just come across the dying bear the day it was filmed: it was spotted at least two days earlier by Paul Nicklen. He must have had a satellite phone with him when he saw the bear but the only call he made was to his film crew — he made no attempt to find a local conservation officer to euthanize the bear, which would have been the right thing to do.

ADDED July 27 2018: Calling a conservation officer to euthanize the bear would have been the right thing to do not only out of compassion (and to know the cause of illness, because a necropsy would have been done), but because a starving bear is especially dangerous: it would have been a potential danger to any unsuspecting person who set foot on the island (he was strong enough to swim away, so was probably strong enough to kill a child, if not an adult).

The bear’s emaciated, near-death stagger2 was simply too tantalizing to pass up (video needs action: an emaciated dead bear would not been nearly as effective). Mittermeier claims they knew when they filmed the bear that he was sick or injured, but Nicklon presented it as an effect of climate change regardless. Mittermeier now says National Geographic simply “went too far” with their video caption (“This is what climate change looks like“), that she and Nicklan “lost control of the narrative.”

Actually, what they lost was their humanity.

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What polar bear habitat could look like in another 5-6 weeks

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC, Sept. 20 report), the annual sea ice minimum extent was reached on Sept. 13, 2013.

At 5.10 million square kilometers, this year’s low was a whopping 1.69 million square kilometers above the minimum extent for 2012 (which was the lowest since 1979) and well within two standard deviations of the 1979-2010 average. (Two standard deviations: “Measurements that fall far outside of the two standard deviation range or consistently fall outside that range suggest that something unusual is occurring that can’t be explained by normal processes”).

The minimum extent for 2013 is virtually indistinguishable from the minimum for 2009, which was 5.13 million square kilometers. The ice was distributed a bit differently in 2009 – more in the east and less in the west — than it was this year (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. Using the JAXA “Sea ice monitor” feature, I plotted the date the 2013 minimum was reached (September 13, 5.10 million square kilometers, white) with an overlay (purple) for the same date back in 2009 (September 13, 2009, 5.13 million square kilometers), when that year’s minimum was reached (according to the NSIDC report). Areas of overlap are pink.

Figure 1. I used JAXA to plot the date the 2013 minimum was reached (September 13, 5.10 million square kilometers, white) with an overlay (purple) for the same date back in 2009 (September 13, 2009, 5.13 million square kilometers), when that year’s minimum was reached. Areas of overlap are pink.

You’ll know from previous discussions here that the annual minimum reached in late summer has little impact on polar bear health and survival (see excellent summary of the evidence for that here). What matters most to polar bears is the presence of ample ice in spring and early summer (March-June), which is their critical feeding period.

But after the fast that many polar bears endure over the height of the summer, they are eager to get back onto the ice and resume hunting. When in the fall does that become possible?

I wondered what the similarity in extent for 2013 and 2009 might tell us about polar bear habitat development over the next month or so.

In other words, what might polar bears this year expect in the way of sea ice development by say, the end of October? When might they be able to start hunting?

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