Tag Archives: facts

White Lie: Polar bear starvation is virtually never caused by sea ice loss

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.

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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:

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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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Sea ice is critical habitat for polar bears from late fall through late spring only

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.

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[This PBI newsletter from 2011 repeats this meme and Andrew Derocher’s recent tweet conveys a similar message (“Sea ice loss = habitat loss for polar bears”)]

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

Spring feeding for polar bears is over – sea ice levels are now largely irrelevant

Polar bears in virtually all regions will now have finished their intensive spring feeding, which means sea ice levels are no longer an issue. A few additional seals won’t make much difference to a bear’s condition at this point, except perhaps for young bears that haven’t had a chance to feed as heavily as necessary over the spring due to inexperience or competition.

Polar bear feeding by season simple_Nov 29 2015

The only seals available on the ice for polar bears to hunt in early July through October are predator-savvy adults and subadults. But since the condition of the sea ice makes escape so much easier for the seals to escape, most bears that continue to hunt are unsuccessful – and that’s been true since the 1970s. So much for the public hand-wringing over the loss of summer sea ice on behalf of polar bear survival!

Polar bears in most areas of the Arctic are at their fattest by late June. They are well prepared to go without food for a few months if necessary – a summer fast is normal for polar bears, even for those that spend their time on the sea ice.

Putting on hundreds of pounds of fat in the spring to last through periods of food scarcity later in the year (at the height of summer and over the winter) is the evolutionary adaptation that has allowed polar bears to live successfully in the Arctic.
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Polar bear habitat update mid-May: little change since 1989 despite CO2 increase

Sea ice habitat for polar bears has not become progressively worse each year during their season of critical feeding and mating, as some scaremongers often imply. It’s true that absolute extent of Arctic ice is lower this spring than it was in 1979. However, according to NSIDC Masie figures, polar bear habitat at mid-May registers about 12 million km2, just as it did in 2006 (although it is distributed a little differently); other data show spring extent has changed little since a major decline occurred in 1989, despite ever-rising CO2 levels.

Polar bear feeding_Shutterstock_sm

In other words, there has been virtually no change in sea ice cover over the last 12 years, despite the fact that atmospheric CO2 has now surpassed 410 parts per million, a considerable and steady increase over levels in 2006 which were about 380 ppm (see below, from the Scripps Oceanographic Laboratory, included in the Washington Post story 3 May 2018):

Scripps CO2 curve at 29 April 2018

Not only that, but if rising CO2 levels were responsible for the decline of sea ice and implied effects on polar bears since 1979 (when CO2 levels were around 340 ppm), why has spring ice extent been so variable since 1989 (when the first big decline occurred) but so little changed overall since then? See the NSIDC graph below for April:

Sea ice 2018 April average_NSIDC graph

This year on day 134 (14 May), global ice cover registered 12.3 mkm2:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 May 14

In 2016 on the same day, the overall extent was much the same but there was more ice in the Chukchi and Bering Seas and less in the eastern Beaufort:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2016 May 14

More close-up charts of different regions below for 2018 vs. 2016, showing more detail.

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Polar bear numbers, margins of error, & consequences for conservation status

Large margins of error in polar bear population estimates means the conservation status threshold of a 30% decline (real or predicted) used by the US Endangered Species Act and the IUCN Red List is probably not valid for this species.

Polar_Bear_Biologist_USFWS_working_with_a_Bear_Oct 24 2001 Amstrup photo

Several recent subpopulation estimates have shown an increase between one estimate and another of greater than 30% yet deemed not to be statistically significant due to large margins of error. How can such estimates be used to assess whether population numbers have declined enough to warrant IUCN Red List or ESA protection?

What do polar bear population numbers mean for conservation status, if anything?

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Low Bering Sea ice mostly due to south winds, no data on an impact for polar bears

Sea ice in the Bering Sea this winter was said to be the lowest since the 1850s, largely driven by persistent winds from the south rather than the usual north winds although warm Pacific water was a factor early in the season (AIRC 2018). But what, if any, impact is this surprisingly low winter and spring ice cover likely to have on Chukchi Sea polar bear health and survival?

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In fact, research on Chukchi Sea polar bears has included so few examples of individuals utilizing the Bering Sea in winter (Jan-March) and early spring (April-May) that any conclusions regarding an impact from this year’s sea ice conditions are likely to be invalid. In short, we don’t know what will happen since it has not happened before within living memory; the opinions of polar bear specialists must be taken with a grain of salt because so many of their previous assumptions have turned out to be wrong (Crockford 2017a,b, 2018), see here, here, and here. Seals, walrus and polar bears are much more flexible and resilent to changes in habitat conditions than most modern biologists give them credit for and consequently, it will be fascinating to see how the ice will change over the coming months and how the animals will respond.

Sea ice extent 2018 March average NSIDC

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