Guest essay by Dr. Susan Crockford, Zoologist
A new paper by Dr. Susan Crockford, published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, explains a fundamental problem with polar bear conservation – the fallacy that under natural conditions, sea ice is a stable, predictable habitat for polar bears and their prey.
Foreword by Dr. Matthew A. Cronin
This same practice of Lysenkoism has long been under way in western science in regard to the politically correct theory of man caused, catastrophic, global warming. [Peter Ferrara, Forbes1]
Harsh words indeed. Ferrara’s insights got my attention because, as a geneticist, I am quite familiar with the tragedy of Trofim Lysenko’s science in the Soviet Union in the 1900s. Lysenko insisted that agricultural science be consistent with communist doctrine, and he rejected western science, most notably Mendelian genetics. This resulted in persecution of dissenting scientists, and the failure of Soviet agriculture, which in turn resulted in massive famines at a time when western science was giving us the Green Revolution of greatly increased agricultural production.
The reason Lysenko was so influential was because he used the government to force his science, and farming policy derived from it, onto the entire Soviet Union. The author Michael Crichton MD also saw the parallel of Lysenkoism and global warming:
Lysenko.. .dominated Russian biology. The result was famines that killed millions, and purges that sent hundreds of dissenting Soviet scientists to the gulags or the firing squads… Now we are engaged in a great new theory. . .that has drawn the support of politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the world. . .Once again, critics are few and harshly dealt with…” [Michael Crichton 2004] 2
Ferrara and Crichton believe that global warming has now become a politicized science similar to Lysenkoism, in which dissenting views are not allowed. Cries of ‘The science is settled’ on global warming and persecution of so-called ‘deniers’ are unsettling echoes of this era. The similarities of global warming and Lysenkoism described by these authors should serve as a warning to scientists and laymen alike.
Undeterred by such a politically-charged climate, Susan Crockford has addressed an important aspect of the global warming issue: the status of polar bears. Her thorough analysis convincingly argues that the science on polar bears has been presented in a one-sided way to support predictions of impacts from global warming and makes the point that we must consider data whether or not it supports predictions. Scientists know that predictions are basically hypotheses that need to be tested with observations, not accepted as conclusions.
I have experience with such wildlife issues including impacts of oilfields on caribou in northern Alaska (the population grew tenfold during the period of oilfield development and operation but only negative impacts are emphasized by wildlife biologists), and the arbitrary classification of subspecies and populations for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listings.
My work and that of others with DNA and fossils have also shown that polar bears likely have been a species for at least several hundred thousand years and thus survived previous interglacial periods in which there likely was little or no Arctic summer sea ice.
I pointed out that if the bears survived one such period perhaps they could survive another, with the logic that if we can predict the polar bear’s future we can also infer its past. This has been ignored (and denigrated) by the polar bear research community although it is a legitimate finding. This is presumably because it does not support predictions (i.e. hypotheses) of polar bears’ extinction.
Crockford’s work is similar in presenting data that do not support declines of polar bear numbers caused exclusively by loss of summer sea ice. She uses her broad background in several scientific fields to question the basic assumption that sea ice is a stable environment in all seasons, even over short time periods.
The loss of stable sea ice is a basic assumption of the models used to predict declines in polar bear numbers to the point of being threatened with extinction (being threatened or endangered with extinction is the criterion for ESA listing).
Scientists know that the assumptions used in a model are critical to its validity. For example, assumptions in genetic models that I use (e.g. mutation rates or species divergence times) are estimates, not known quantities, making model results uncertain. It is legitimate to use models with uncertain assumptions, but the uncertainty of the model results must be openly acknowledged and alternatives considered.
Crockford demonstrates that this has not been done for polar bears and that the basic assumption of stable sea ice is not valid. She strengthens her argument with revelations that there is a consensus that winter sea ice is expected to persist despite global warming, and that heavy spring ice, not absence of summer ice, has a negative impact on seals and thus polar bears. These points could change the entire argument about the future survival of polar bears.
The constant chorus declaring crises for high-profile wildlife (snail darters, spotted owls, wolves, bears, etc.) has led to what I call the ‘pan-impact’ paradigm: there is always a human impact on wildlife, and scientific information will be found to support a preconceived conclusion. This has resulted in many of us now having a skeptical ‘boy who cried wolf’ attitude regarding wildlife: everything people do will be claimed to have a negative impact on some critical species, and must be corrected by top-down government regulation (of which the ESA is a preferred mechanism in the USA).
This is dangerous, not only to science and economics, but because we might not pay attention when real threats arise.
I appreciate that global warming is potentially very important. But,we should not stifle the open discussion and debate that is integral to science. Crockford’s article is a valuable contribution to the scientific discourse on polar bears, and I hope it gets a fair hearing.
I encourage readers on both sides of the climate debate to engage in civil discourse on these issues, and not prejudge anywork without thoughtful consideration.
Matthew Cronin is Professor of Animal Genetics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Footnotes to foreword
2. Michael Crichton. 2004. State of Fear (Appendix I Why politicized science is dangerous). Harper Collins, New York.
The Arctic Fallacy: Sea Ice Stability and the Polar Bear
Since the late 1960s, Arctic marine mammal conservation has been based on the assumption that sea ice provides a stable, predictable environment for polar bears and Arctic seals: today, it underpins their ‘threatened with extinction’ status. A stable environment, the oversimplified K-selection theory goes, should support populations at relatively high levels over time, without marked variation in size due to habitat change.
This idealized concept was strongly promoted by the most popular university-level ecology textbooks of the 1970s and was embraced by early polar bear biologists, who began their careers at a time when polar bear were truly threatened with extinction by overhunting.
Observations since then, however, have shown the assumption of sea ice as a stable habitat over short time scales is false. Spring sea ice thickness has been naturally variable over time scales of a few years to decades in the Beaufort Sea, East Greenland, and Hudson Bay; spring ice extent has been naturally variable in the Barents Sea for centuries and spring snow depth on sea ice is known to vary over short periods.
Marked declines in polar bear and ringed seal survival in response to thick spring sea ice and reduced snow depth have been documented. These two variables are closely tied because spring (April — June) is the period of on-ice birth and nursing for ice-dependent seals and is also when polar bears consume two-thirds of their annual prey.
Apparently expecting stable or increasing populations, despite their own evidence to the contrary, Arctic biologists now surprisingly attribute virtually every downturn in population size of Arctic species to declines in summer sea ice blamed on human use of fossil fuels.
Shifting the blaming for the devastation caused by thick spring ice onto recent summer ice declines, biologists portray summer ice changes as manifestations of unprecedented, human-caused habitat instability.
Regardless of such willful blindness to the facts, the assumption that Arctic sea ice is a naturally stable habitat over short time frames is a biological fallacy. Predictive population models based on this myth are flawed, their results illusory. Yet, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the US government have, for the first time, accepted modeled (future) population declines of Arctic species based on modeled (future) summer sea ice changes as valid threats to their survival, all built upon this fallacy.
Given what we now know about the animals and their naturally changing habitat, it is time to concede that data do not support predictions that polar bears, walrus, and Arctic seals are threatened with extinction due to habitat instability.
Read the whole thing:
GWPF press release here http://www.thegwpf.org/polar-bear-scientists-willfully-blind-to-the-facts/
PolarBearScience blog post http://polarbearscience.com/2015/06/08/my-new-arctic-fallacy-paper-sea-ice-stability-and-the-polar-bear/
A second PolarBearScience blog post: http://polarbearscience.com/2015/06/30/usgs-promotes-another-flawed-polar-bear-model-ghg-emissions-still-primary-threat/