In case you missed it: The real story behind the famous starving polar-bear video reveals more manipulation (29 August 2018).
In case you missed it: The real story behind the famous starving polar-bear video reveals more manipulation (29 August 2018).
Starvation due to natural causes is the leading cause of death for polar bears and loss of body condition (getting thinner) is therefore the first symptom of impending death for virtually all polar bears that die naturally. However, polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher claims that loss of body condition is also the first symptom of climate change for polar bears.
But how do you tell the difference between polar bears made thin by man-made climate change and those who are thin due to natural causes?
You can’t. Even a necropsy will not be conclusive because there are so many natural reasons for a bear to lose weight — and even starve to death — that’s it’s virtually impossible to say that any thin bear is skinny due to a lack of sea ice.
Emaciated polar bears like the one above from Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic,1 captured on camera in August 2017, are being used to promote the idea that polar bears are already dying of starvation due to climate change. That’s a big white lie, as the headline above suggests: seven months later, National Geographic has admitted as much. Here I show why it could not have been true in the first place (with references from the scientific literature).
UPDATE: 29 August 2018: See my op-ed in the National Post (29 August 2018) and the GWPF video below on this issue:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Additional information is available regarding the fatal mauling of a young Arviat father two weeks ago that may answer the question of why the bear left the Hudson Bay sea ice well before it was necessary. Was it lack of sea ice (blamed on global warming), as biologist Ian Stirling recently insisted — or did natural food attractants lure the bear ashore prematurely?
I would also like to appeal to readers to consider a donation to the Go Fund Me campaign set up to support the widow and children of Aaron Gibbons, who was only 31 years old. So far, there has not been an overwhelming response (less than 1/2 of the modest goal of $5,000 met after two weeks) and that saddens me deeply.
I have contributed myself but each individual can only do so much. Imagine losing your spouse in this most vicious manner (the children witnessed the attack and were the one’s that called for help) and think of the challenges of healing your family and keeping it afloat financially. Please see the GO FUND ME page and contribute if you can.
What I’ve learned over the last week is that the polar bear that killed Aaron Gibbons was a big male in poor condition but he was not the only bear onshore at the time. In addition, the Arctic tern nesting colony on Sentry Island was undoubtedly an enticing natural attractant that seems to have encouraged these bears to leave the ice far north of where they might otherwise have come ashore.
UPDATE 20 July 2018: I’ve added the most recent (19 July) map of collared WH polar bear locations on Hudson Bay to the “Condition of the Sea Ice” discussion below. Also, I am pleased to see that the GO FUND ME campaign has now gone above the half-way mark (~$2800.00 as of 2:00 PM Pacific time). My personal thanks to every one who was able to contribute. I hope to see the goal reached within the next few days.
UPDATE 6 September 2018: A news announcement today revealed that the necropsy done on the bear that attacked Aaron Gibbons was an adult male in “fair” condition (thin but not skinny). See my report here and the news story here. And I’m pleased to report that the GoFundMe goal of $5000 for Aaron’s family has been reached: thanks to all PolarBearScience readers for their support.
Sea ice is said to be “an essential habitat for polar bears” but that’s an overly simplistic advocacy meme as ridiculous as the “no sea ice, no polar bears” message with which the public is constantly bombarded. Polar bears require sea ice from late fall to late spring only: from early summer to mid-fall, sea ice is optional. Historical evidence of polar bears that spent 5 months on land during the summer of 1874 proves an extended stay ashore is a natural response of polar bears to natural summer ice retreat, not a consequence of recent human-caused global warming. Sea ice is a seasonal requirement for polar bears: it’s not necessary year round.
As long as sea ice is available from late fall through late spring (December to early June) and accompanied by abundant seal prey (sometimes it isn’t, see Derocher and Stirling 1995; Stirling 2002; Stirling et al. 1981, 1982, 1984), polar bears can survive a complete or nearly complete fast from June to late November (and pregnant females from June to early April the following year). That’s the beauty of their Arctic adaptation: fat deposited in early spring allows polar bears to survive an extraordinary fast whether they spend the time on land or sea ice.
Young and very old bears, as well as sick and injured ones, are the exception: these bears often come ashore in poor condition and end up dying of starvation — as a much-publicized bear on Baffin Island who likely had a form of cancer did last summer (Crockford 2018). Competition with bigger, stronger bears means these bears can’t keep what they are able to kill and they are most often the bears who cause problems. Starvation is the leading natural cause of death for polar bears because if they cannot put on the fat they need in spring, they will not survive the low food months of summer and winter, whether they are on land or out on the sea ice (Amstrup 2003). Continue reading