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).
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
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?
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.
New Scientist has an article coming out next week takes a fairly reasoned approach to the polar bear conservation issue. It acknowledges that polar bear numbers have not declined in recent years even though summer sea ice dropped dramatically but goes on to perpetuate a number of myths that might not have happened if the author had done his homework or quizzed his other experts as thoroughly as he did me.
The survivors: is climate change really killing polar bears? Rapid global warming is said to be ringing the death knell for polar bears, by melthing their icy hunting grounds. But the reality is more complex. Fred Pearce, New Scientist 10 February 2018. Online now.
The really significant content of a new paper being heavily-hyped by the media1 is what wasn’t said rather than what the authors discovered about metabolic rates and weight maintenance of a small sample of nine Southern Beaufort Sea bears in 2014 to 2016 (Pagano et al. 2018; Whiteman 2018).
This paper does not document starving or dying bears but merely found some (5/9) that lost weight when they should have been gaining, given that early April is the start of the ringed seal pupping season (Smith 1987) and the intensive spring feeding period for polar bears (Stirling et al. 1981).
The question is, why were Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears off Prudhoe Bay (see map of the study area below), still hunting and capturing only adult and subadult ringed seals from sea ice leads when newborn ringed seal pups and their mothers should have been plentiful and relatively easily available in their birth lairs on the sea ice (see below)?
“Using video collar data, we documented bears’ hunting behavior and foraging success. Bears used sit-and-wait tactics to hunt seals 90% of the time, and stalking comprised the remaining 10% of hunts (movies S1 to S4) (19). Bears that successfully killed and ate adult or subadult ringed seals either gained or maintained body mass, whereas bears that only scavenged or showed no evidence of eating lost mass.”
There was no discussion in the paper of ringed seal birth lairs, or sea ice conditions at the time of the study, but several mentions about what might happen in the future to sea ice and potential consequences for polar bears. The press release did the same.
However, as you’ll see by the sea ice thickness maps below, there may be good reason for the lack of ringed seal lairs, and a general lack of seals except at the nearshore lead that forms because of tidal action: the ice just a bit further offshore ice looks too thick for a good crop of ringed seals in all three years of the study. This is reminiscent of conditions that occurred with devastating results in the mid-1970s and mid-2000s (Burns et al. 1975; Cherry et al. 2009; Harwood et al. 2012, 2015; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002, Stirling et al. 1987). Those events affected primarily bears in the eastern half of the Southern Beaufort and were almost certainly responsible for the recorded decline in SB bear numbers in the 2001-2010 survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015; Crockford 2017; Crockford and Geist 2018).
It seems very odd to me that Pagano and colleagues suggested no reasons for the unexpectedly poor showing of polar bear hunting success during their study except a bit of hand-waving about higher-than-we-thought metabolic rates in the bears. For years, I’ve worried that the inevitable next episodes of thick Southern Beaufort spring ice would cause problems for polar bears and seals but we wouldn’t know it because whatever effects were documented would be blamed on reduced summer ice: I suspect that time may have come.
I did considerable research on polar bear attacks for my thriller of a novel EATEN — which many readers are finding a welcome change from the numbers-and-statistics approach of science — and I have to say that a recently published scientific summary of this phenomenon (1880-2014) authored by biologist James Wilder and colleagues left me speechless (Wilder et al. 2017).
By attempting to generate information that could be assessed with statistical methods, the authors ended up with data that is so skewed and incomplete that it fails to provide a plausible assessment of the risk to humans of attacks by polar bears. In my opinion, acknowledging that well-reported attacks on Europeans (or recorded by them) make up the bulk of the data used in the paper does not adequately address the weakness of the authors’ conclusions that attacks by polar bears are “extremely rare.”
The paper also focuses much attention on the potential for increases in polar bear attacks on humans due to sea ice loss (blamed on global warming) but ignores totally the increased risk stemming from the larger proportion of adult males that now exist in protected populations. Adult males frequently steal the kills of younger bears and in recovering (i.e. growing) populations, relatively more adult males potentially generate more young males that are nutritionally stressed and at risk of attacking humans (see discussion below).
Finally, no supplementary data is provided to show which records of attacks were included in the study, and no information is provided about how to access the database. How is that possible in this day and age?
Much is made in the paper of the negative effect of polar bear attacks on conservation objectives and the perceived increase in attacks associated with recent sea ice loss. These points were picked up by activist organization Polar Bears International (“Save Our Sea Ice!“) in a press release issued yesterday (11 July, pdf here). This has already generated the desired media attention (here and here, likely more to follow, like this) which is predictably focused on predictions of more polar bear attacks on humans due to global warming.
I have a feeling Inuit and other native inhabitants of the Arctic will not be impressed.
The more the polar bears fail to die in droves, the shriller the message from activist polar bear researchers – via willing media megaphones – that the great death of the bears will soon be upon us, just you wait and see!
Some big media guns were out this past week spreading the prophesy of doom fed to them by the polar bear researchers most committed to the “threatened with extinction” narrative: The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian. The desperation is becoming palpable as the public catches on to their epic failure.
In 2007, the sea ice dropped to a level the experts said wouldn’t be reached until mid-century, and since then, it has remained at that low level (about 3-5mkm2, give or take some measuring error). And in 2007, US Geological Survey (USGS) biologists said with absolute confidence that when sea ice levels reached that point, 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would be gone.
No bears at all would remain, they said, in Western Hudson Bay (the Churchill bears), Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, Southern Beaufort, Chukchi Sea, Barents Sea, Kara Sea, and the Laptev Sea: ten out of 19 subpopulations would be extirpated if sea ice levels in most years dropped to the summer lows in the 3-5 mkm2 range.
On the basis of that prediction, polar bears were declared ‘threatened’ with extinction by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
But nothing of the kind happened. There are still lots of polar bears – and not even struggling-to-survive bears but lots of fat healthy bears everywhere across the Arctic, in what were considered by USGS biologists to be the most vulnerable regions of all: Western Hudson Bay (i.e., Churchill), Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort (Alaska) and the Barents Sea (Norway).
This is the truth the world needs to hear: the experts were wrong. Polar bears have not been driven to the brink of extinction by climate change, they are thriving. This is the message of each of my two new books (one of which is appropriate for kids of all ages, see the sidebar).
In turns out that polar bears are much more resilient to changing levels of sea ice than data collectors assume and the proof is in the current healthy populations everywhere. Continue reading