Polar Bears: Which Narrative to Believe?

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Originally published May 1, 2019 in the Pacifica Tribune column What’s Natural by Jim Steele, republished here by request of the author.

When polar bear expert Mitch Taylor modeled populations in the Baffin Bay region (west of Greenland) in the 1980s, he estimated between 300 and 600 bears. Inuit hunters protested his estimates were far too low, and Baffin Bay’s hunting quotas far too small. So, Taylor and Inuit hunters sat together in “kappiananngittuq” to discuss their disagreements. The Inuit pointed out he surveyed during a time and in a place that overlooked a large portion of the population. Naturally, models driven by poor data always fail to model reality.

To Taylor’s credit, he redesigned his surveys based on hunters’ recommendations. The new survey tripled population estimates to over 2000 bears. Although a trend in the bear population could not be determined, it has been universally agreed that since the 1974 International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears, polar bear populations were increasing due to better hunting regulations.

Of the 5 polar bear populations deemed to be declining by Canadian researchers, three declines were due to over hunting. Only two declines, such as western Hudson Bay, were possibly driven by global warming. Models suggested bears of western Hudson Bay were declining because warming was reducing sea ice. In 2013, extremist researchers like Andrew Derocher proclaimed, “All indications are that this population could collapse in the space of a year or two if conditions got bad enough,” and the media echoed ‘bears were on the verge of collapse’. Instead, that bear population has now increased. It is interesting to note the Hudson Bay is totally ice free every summer. So, does less summer sea ice truly hurt polar bears?

The claim that less sea ice will cause polar bears to go extinct is just one narrative, not tested science. From a historical perspective, Derocher’s claim that two-thirds of all polar bears could go extinct by 2030 is laughable. Numerous researchers have reported Arctic temperatures averaged about 3 degrees higher than today between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago and sea ice extent was far less for thousands of years. Clearly, polar bears did not go extinct, and history does not support Derocher’s narrative.

Most importantly, Arctic studies show less sea ice promotes more photosynthesis. After sea ice had recently decreased by 9%, Stanford scientists determined productivity increased by 30%. More photosynthesis provides more food for fish. More fish feed more seals and fatter seals feed more polar bears.

Conversely, there is solid evidence that thick ice is detrimental to seals and bears. Despite plenty of sea ice to hunt from, each winter all polar bears lose weight. Polar bears’ main prey is ringed seals, but bears have a very low success rate when hunting seals at their breathing holes. Polar bears feed most successfully from March to May when ringed seals birth their pups on the ice. Feasting on seal pups, bears can quickly quadruple their weight. After giving birth and molting, ringed seals leave the ice and migrate to the open ocean to feed and become quite inaccessible to bears for the summer. Recent reductions in sea ice from July to September are irrelevant for bears’ summer hunting success. But open waters do benefit seals and fish.

To remain in the Arctic all winter ringed seals must create several breathing holes. When new thin ice first forms, they bust out several breathing holes using their heads. As winter proceeds they gnaw and claw to keep their holes open. Wherever sea ice survives for several years it becomes too thick to create breathing holes. So, across the Arctic, regions of thick ice contain the fewest seals and fewest bears. In contrast, in the Hudson Bay where new ice must form each year seals and bears are abundant!

Researchers report cycles of thick spring-time ice stress ringed seals. Natural cycles change wind directions, trapping ice against various coasts. As layers of ice raft over each other, the new ice thickens. Thicker ice delays seals from reaching open water for summer feeding, resulting in weight loss. Low weights cause seals to forego breeding the next year thus reducing the bears’ food supply.

Because local ice conditions frequently change, polar bears do not defend territories. Instead bears are flexible and move great distances seeking out regions with more seals. One radio-collared bear was tracked moving from Alaska to Greenland during a summer.

When winds shift, thick sea ice can be blown out into the relatively warm Atlantic. This allows new ice to form which then can support more seals and more bears. Based on this basic biology, the Inuits’ narrative, “It is the time of the most polar bears” is best supported by scientific evidence.


Jim Steele is the retired director of San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.

Contact: naturalclimatechange@earthlink.net

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62 thoughts on “Polar Bears: Which Narrative to Believe?

  1. Polar bears, like most predatory mammals, are adaptable creatures.
    That polar bears are omnivores despite being apex predators is also a testament to their evolved ability to eat just about anything. This is much like humans as apex predators, confronted through deep time with multiple environments and rapidly interannual and intra-annual changing climate conditions, they will eat what they can find.
    Now I’m sure they’d love to just feast on seal and walrus I figure. But a village’s human garbage dump with waste food or a research base camp with poorly stored provisions to scavenge for will also do as well. They are just not that far removed from grizzly bears, which of course everyone knows will eat anything from candy bars and human sandwiches to river salmon.

    • polar bears … eat just about anything

      And, everything they eat necessarily contains organic carbon. And, organic carbon is ultimately sourced from atmospheric CO2, whence it was extracted through photosynthesis/phytoplankton.

      Ice does not support photosynthesis.

      CO2 feeds polar bears.

      • “polar bears … eat just about anything”

        Just thought of something.

        Canada has a garbage problem (The Philippines has almost declared war on us because we’ve been caught dumping garbage there).

        Polar bears love garbage.

        So…when (if?) they start to actual starve (as a species, not just a few hundred or thousand), we simply stop shipping our garbage to the Third World, and start shipping it north for the polar bears.

        Is this enough to get a Peace Prize nomination?

        • If it were, I’d be way ahead of you with my suggestion that we kill two birds with one stone, and send all of the poor, unwanted pets we see so heart-wrenchingly displayed on our TV screens every Christmas overseas to feed those poor, starving children who compete so wretchedly for our money a minute later.

          For, who are we to say what a person can, or cannot eat? In the Philippines, dog is a delicacy, and if I were a starving little kid with a stick-figure for a body, and a balloon for a head, I’d eat rats and be happy. My idea is a step up from that, but do think I’ll ever see it implemented? Hell, no. so you can just wait for your prize.

        • Is this enough to get a Peace Prize nomination?

          It’s probably enough to get a few million dollars worth of grant

    • Polar bear fossils have been found and dated to as early as approximately 2.6 mya – at the very beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch. Meaning that polar bears most likely evolved from a prior land-dwelling large bear as the glaciation-interglacial cycles began at that time. Obviously polar bears – creatures of the Pleistocene – have adapted extremely well to all extremes of the glacial cycles across all two dozen flip flops.

      The fact that polar bears have been documented to travel intercontinental distances in order to practice their subsistance lifestyles is evidence by itself of extreme adaptability.

  2. Derocher’s claim that two-thirds of all polar bears could go extinct by 2030 is laughable.

    It’s t just laughable, it’s impossible for 2/3 of a species to go extinct. The population could be reduced by 2/3, not “go extinct”.

    Words mean stuff!

    • Zig Zag Wanderer

      Faced with the constant misuse of terms like ‘carbon’ for CO2 it becomes really easy for even sceptics to overlook ridiculous statements like that. I try to be careful but I missed the gaffe you highlighted.

      Well spotted, it’s worth maintaining vigilance.

      • Ah, this may explain a rather stupid claim they Saint David Attenbollox recently when he claimed that 80% of birds had gone extinct. He may been referring to a similar “individual” extinction. I guess if we did enough he may be talking about one species of bird whose population has reduced by 80%.

      • And yet, might it be possible for 2/3 of all living polar bears today [May 2019] to be dead by 2030 [let’s say 01 January 2030]?
        Now, many will have descendants living – but 2/3 will be dead.

        Indeed, I venture to suggest that by 2079 – a mere sixty years from today – all bears [living today] will be extinct [aka ‘dead’].
        NB – per the Wicki Thingi, which even I can edit, “Life expectancy: –
        Polar bears rarely live beyond 25 years.[130] The oldest wild bears on record died at age 32, whereas the oldest captive was a female who died in 1991, age 43.[131]” – so my guess that all will be dead in sixty years looks a shoo-in.

        Auto

    • The author may have meant that the polar bears were theorized to become extinct across 2/3 of their current range, would would be meaningful. But Mr. Steele can certainly speak for himself.

      • Even in your suggestion, the word ‘extinct’ is miss used. The correct term would be ‘extirpated’.

        But let’s remember that Mr. Steele was just quoting what Derocher was claiming. I don’t believe the misuse of the word extinction was Mr. Steele’s word choice.

      • Please stop using “extinct” unless you mean extinct. Reduced habitation is not extinction. We do not consider Arctic Parrots extinct merely because parrots do not live in the arctic.

    • I agree that the word “extirpation” would be better than using the word “extinct” when only a percentage of a species has disappeared. That said the word extinction does not always apply to just the species level, but can also a apply to limited population within a species. Technically, it is correct to say that two thirds of the populations went extinct. Therefore when Derocher suggests that 2/3 of the polar bears will go extinct, he technically used the word correctly, assuming that he is referring to 2/3 of the populations. And because of that fuzziness when using the word “extinction”, many researchers and journalists prefer to push alarming conclusions using the word “extinct”.

      We can focus our arguments on the semantics of the word extinction, but we will go nowhere. There are more important points to argue!

      The main point to focus on is that total polar bear ‘abundance’ has increased! Dishonest alarmists [Griff? Dave Petterson?] will try to argue that more bears are on land due to less sea ice, but that is a red herring. The honest facts are “overall “abundance’ has increased. Aerial survey censuses are not suggesting there are more bears on land. They are reporting there are more bears all together! As reported in this article, most seals leave the ice to forage in open waters in June. The probability of catching a seal after June that is not a pup or not molting is very, very low. From the bear’s vantage point, when the probability of catching a seal on the ice plummets to near zero in June, whether or not there is a lot of ice or very little, the probability of finding food at a human dump often were more favorable. When dumps were closed to keep bears out, the number of bear encounters in towns like Churchill plummeted. It had nothing to do with changes in summer sea ice!

  3. “Andrew Derocher proclaimed, “All indications are that this population could collapse in the space of a year or two if conditions got bad enough,” and the media echoed ‘bears were on the verge of collapse’. Instead, that bear population has now increased. It is interesting to note the Hudson Bay is totally ice free every summer. So, does less summer sea ice truly hurt polar bears?

    The claim that less sea ice will cause polar bears to go extinct is just one narrative, not tested science. From a historical perspective, Derocher’s claim that two-thirds of all polar bears could go extinct by 2030 is laughable.”

    Because of Andrew Derocher’s incompetence in his reporting to Environment Canada, and their reluctance to issue more permits to hunt polar hears at least 2 Inuit died in 2018 alone because there were too many bears. Mr. Derocher has blood on his hands and should be asked to retire with his funding cut off.

    • I would love to know how Derocher explains the survival of polar bears through the warm periods (much warmer than today) since the end of the last Ice Age.

      • Essentially, he doesn’t need to explain because he doesn’t accept that there were periods that were “much warmer than today”!

  4. I’ve always wondered about this “less ice = bad for polar bears” paradigm. Polar are Animals of Considerable Size ™ and such animals (especially mammals) require a considerable caloric intake. In all the pictures I’ve ever seen of the Arctic, I’ve never seen that amount of calories ON the ice. It always seemed to me that the calories were BELOW the ice. How can making the barrier between bears and their calories thicker help the bears? Isn’t that a logical question to be asked?

    • Your problem is you use logic. You are suppose to use feelings after all without ice the bears would have to swim. You know swimming is hard for us so it must be so for the bears. You know it no possible for a bear to swim all day is it? That the logic most people use, as to research and reading is not possible, after all that hard. They have to believe what PBS presents after all it PBS and they would not lie, right?

        • “I have been told that they, the polar bears, can swim up to 200 miles.”

          Hence Ursa Maritimus rather than Ursa Glacies

        • Which is why polar bears kept at zoos often acquire a green tint as the algae that grows in their warm freshwater pools starts growing inside of the hair shafts.

  5. And such is the ebb and flow of all species. Doesn’t take a PHD to understand the life cycle of all life is affected by many variables.

  6. The Inuits knew what climate change nitwits could never intuit.
    New ice/thin ice is better for both seals and polar bears!

  7. WWF clearly disagree with Derocher, as they are involved with a tour company in Churchill operating Polar Bear tours, using diesel powered Polar Rovers, starting from around $7000 a trip. The photos they use show well fed thriving bears:

    https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2018/12/31/wwfs-polar-bear-tours/

    “Polar Rovers are powered by 240 H.P. DT466 International engines, giving us a top speed of 35 miles per hour.”

    They are truck engines from way back:
    https://www.dieselworldmag.com/diesel-engines/the-legend/

    Stay Among the Bears in the World’s Most Remarkable Rolling Hotel—on the Tundra Itself!
    https://www.nathab.com/polar-bear-tours/tundra-lodge-adventure/

    “Stay at one of the world’s truly unique accommodations: a mobile hotel designed for polar bear observation, placed each season directly in the bears’ habitat”

    • Thanks, that is one to note as a good example of the total hypocrisy of WWF. Using “dirty” diesel engined Polar Rovers and promoting climate porn tourism to the “pristine” Arctic wilderness. Most clients will clearly be flown up there also emitting tons of “carbon”.

      WWF are cynically exploiting any commercial opening to get cash. They have no commitment to “climate” action. A bunch of money grabbing frauds.

      • Charities exist in order to continue to exist, in order to continue paying their top executives top salaries. Any do-gooding is purely incidental to their business model. Think of fund-raising as the sales department, and actual “charity work” as being a cost to the business. Maximise sales and minimise costs to drive the business, sorry – I mean “charity” forwards. Oxfam spends less than 50% of its income on good works, which is a sensible long term business model if you are in the top management, with the commensurate top salary.

  8. The point is, the bears are on land and around Inuit settlements more – because the ice retreats earlier and faster than historically from shorelines and the bears don’t get on it.

    • Polar bears have always “landed” in summer. Or at least as far back as there are records, i. e. since about 1600 in the North Atlantic sector and 1800 in the Pacific.

      • Susan Crockford is a brave scientist and her latest book describes the vicious attacks that she has withstood from the usual suspects, including M.Mann, that world renowned expert on Polar Bears.

      • Susan Crockford is a brave scientist and her latest book describes the vicious attacks that she has withstood from the usual suspects, including M.Mann, that world renowned expert on Polar Bears!

    • The bears are on land because, as tty says, they always come to land and because there are more of them. And because rootling in dustbins is easier than catching seals.

      The ice is only retreating “earlier than historically” if you believe that history began in 1979. Has it occurred to you to talk to Inuit people who were around in the 1930s or at least whose parents were around in the 1930s? They will tell you that the ice now is not behaving all that differently from what it did then.

      We are seriously into the realm of “policy-based evidence making” here. No fact is too robust to be tortured to death in order to serve the cause of climate change.

      “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” — Stephen Schneider.

      Or put another way, “we are entitled to lie in order to get the result we want”. Nice!

    • The point is, the bears are on land and around Inuit settlements more

      No, the point is that researchers had underestimated PB populations by not doing there job. Thankfully , in this rare case, they did listen to contrary information and act on it.

    • Man that ice must melt so fast the bears can’t run or swim fast enough to keep up with it.

      I have the solution we get activists to all lie down each summer in the water to make a bear highway so they can run and catch up with the ice.

      • I have the solution we get activists to all lie down each summer in the water to make a bear highway so they can run and catch up with the ice.

        wouldn’t that kill two birds with one stone i.e. give them access to the ice and easy access to food?

    • Since when did you become a polar bear expert? Oh, of course…since you began reading The Guardian. Ok, that’s settled then…

    • Griff the slanderer who got eaten by a polar bear when he slandered dr Crockford only to have it shoved up his back side, speaks.
      You know about as much about polar bears as you know about anything else, go back to your self banishment.

  9. When I see the word “”Modelled”” I turn off.

    Before Computers they usually flew, took lots of photo’s and counted the bears. But it s so much easier to be in a nice warm office of course.

    Perhaps if we had persons prepared to do “” Hard work””, we would havefar fewer so called Expert s, but far better data.

    MJE VK5ELL

  10. Unlikely that high temperatures and low sea ice will make polar bears extinct.

    It was 2 degrees c warmer in the arctic, during the Holocene Maximum, some 8,000 years ago, and the bears appear to have come through this warm era just fine.

    R

  11. Folks should always remember that the PBSG kicked Mitchell Taylor, one of the world’s foremost polar bear experts, off the group because his views on climate change were “not helpful.” They then went back and modified their rules to make his epulsion seem justified. Finally, did they replace him with another well-respected researcher? Nope. They replaced him with representatives from polar bear fundraising organizations.

    Not hard to have consensus when you stack the deck…

  12. ” It is interesting to note the Hudson Bay is totally ice free every summer.” – could someone clarify this point for me? Is this ice-free Hudson Bay a recent occurrence, or has it been happing for decades?

    • Normal occurrence, hence the large grain elevator in Churchill Manitoba, google image it, really sticks out on the barren tundra.
      Henry Hudson sailed into Hudson Bay in 1610.

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