Digging for the Truth: How are polar bears really doing with climate change?
Posted by Kevin Clement
in Of Interest and Polar Regions
We all have our guilty little secrets. One of mine (my only one, in fact, despite what my friends may say) is that in supermarket checkout lines I sometimes look at National Enquirer magazines. There, it’s out. But who can resist headlines like “Brady Bunch Alice Gay Cover Up”, or “OJ Stabbed In The Back By Obama”, or “PETA Seeks To Make Jeffrey Dahmer Home A Vegan Eatery”? (All of these are real, by the way.)
I do not, I hasten to add, take any of this seriously or as much more than imaginative fantasy. However, as I have learned from various articles and interviews with authors, the writers of tabloids do not make up their stories from whole cloth. In each, there is an element of reality, a grain of something like truth. It may be a tip, a rumor, a quote taken out of context, or information from a single, unverified source, but there is always a source.
Recently I was surprised to encounter a National-Enquirer-like article in a magazine for which I have more respect: the Polar Times, the publication for members of the American Polar Society.
The article in their latest issue was entitled “Chukchi Polar Bears Thriving While Arctic Ice Recedes”—a statement that seemed contradictory to all I know and all we have recently learned about the status of Polar Bears on a warming planet. I was startled enough by the headline to investigate further.
Much of what fills the pages of the Polar Times is repackaged articles from other journals. The Times collects any and all information related to the polar regions and collates it together, which is what makes the magazine so useful to me. The article in question derived from a website called Heartlander Magazine (news.heartland.org), which in turn cited a study by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
The Heartlander is a right-wing blog site that harshly criticizes the federal government, the president, and in particular, the science behind global climate change. Recent headlines include “Record Antarctic Ice Extent Deflates Global Warming Scare”, and “Fire Statistics Debunk Asserted Link to Global Warming”, and “Getting It Wrong: Prophets of Environmental Doom Are At It Again”. The themes of the stories are divided between “Global climate change isn’t real,” and “Global climate change won’t be so bad”—viewpoints which seemingly contradict each other. But the two coexist on the virtual pages of the Heartlander, and leave no room for any contrary evidence.
The Chukchi Polar Bear article cites the USFWS report, and then quotes a person who writes as a Polar Bear expert as saying, “This new study adds further evidence that far from being endangered, polar bears are thriving in the Arctic,” and “It now seems that the greatest threat that polar bears may face from global warming is from the failed climate model predictions claiming they are doomed” (although how a failed climate model can threaten bears is not made clear).
It wasn’t hard to find the study in question. But it is quite different in tone than the Heartland article would suggest. The first line of the USFWS press release says flatly, “Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to polar bears.” It is true that—here comes the grain of truth—the study found that Chukchi bears were doing well. But it is also true that their neighbors in the Beaufort Sea are not. In fact, of the 19 recognized populations in the world, the Chukchi may be the only one that is holding its own. As one of the authors of the study puts it, “This is a bright light on what can seem like a dim horizon for polar bears.” Dim enough to prompt the USFWS to put Polar Bears on the Threatened list in 2008, despite vociferous protests and controversy at the time.
Looking for an explanation for this anomaly, the authors noted “…there were twice as many reduced ice days over continental shelf waters per year during 2008-2011” in the Southern Beaufort (where bears are suffering) compared to the Chukchi (where bears are doing well). They also cite “Higher biological productivity and prey availability in the (Chukchi) relative to the (Southern Beaufort).” (Read the abstract of the paper at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12339/abstract).
So, first of all, let us rejoice that there is at least one population of ice bears that is, so far, succeeding in the business of survival against overwhelming odds. Second, let us make it a point to always investigate the claims of climate change deniers before we accept them…because inquiring minds want to know.