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Don’t-care bears: should we be worried about polar bears?

Polar bears were once the icon of global warming. Twenty years ago scientists raised the possibility that a world without Arctic sea ice would be a world without polar bears. Last year’s record polar melt…

Polar bears were on thin ice, where are they now? ilovegreenland/Flickr

Polar bears were once the icon of global warming. Twenty years ago scientists raised the possibility that a world without Arctic sea ice would be a world without polar bears. Last year’s record polar melt suggests that such a future is indeed becoming a reality.

But while debate rages over what to do about shipping routes and mineral resources in an ice-free Arctic, polar bears have become a battle ground for countries, oil companies, conservationists and indigenous people.

Shrinking future

Back in the 1950s there were thought to be only around 5,000 polar bears in the Arctic. Then in 1960 the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was established, a crucial decision for polar bear protection. Now, thanks to conservation efforts like these, there are 20,000-25,000 polar bears living in 19 different populations on and around the Arctic Ocean.

Australia’s contribution to Polar Bear conservation

While today it appears their overall population status is not of grave concern, there is also little doubt that polar bears have become increasingly endangered in recent decades. Under the IUCN the bears are now listed as Vulnerable. Indeed, eight populations are now declining, reputedly due to increasing economic development coupled with global warming.

Polar bears have a unique dependence on sea ice because that is where they find most of their prey. As sea ice shrinks, the ringed and bearded seals that provide most of the food for bears, have become much harder to catch.

Several studies have demonstrated a loss of some million square kilometres of sea ice over the last 25 years, inevitably reducing the resilience of polar bear populations.

Bears and oil don’t mix

Increasing interest in polar resources has brought bears into conflict with people. Multinational oil and gas companies regard polar conservation as a constraint on their business activities, and they actively contest the need for bear protection.

In 2008, in response to these increased pressures, the US government declared the species as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Although this does give individual states (such as Alaska) the authority to protect the species, and to take action against those who negatively impact upon it, it does not come under federal legislation.

Missud/Flickr

Along the coast of the Beaufort Sea, considered the core of the fragile ecology in that part of the Arctic, political and economic lobbying to allow drilling is putting pressure on decision makers. This came to a head in early 2013 when a group of multinationals put up a legal challenge to the listing of polar bears as threatened, in the hope of reducing the restrictions on the expansion of their operations.

The US Court of Appeal ruled that the protection of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act was justified, and should continue. Thanks to this decision, threats from multinational oil and gas interests will be moderated for now, giving polar bears more chance of survival into the future.

Going on a bear hunt

Polar bears were under consideration for listing under Appendix II of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which would have banned all trade in polar bear products.

Somewhat surprisingly, in March 2013 this proposal was rejected out of consideration for indigenous livelihoods. Inuit Canadians and other polar people trade in polar bear pelts, paws and fangs, creating income of over $2 million a year.

virtualwayfarer/Flickr

While recognising the concerns of indigenous people, the 2013 CITES meeting ruled that the decline of the polar bear population had not yet reached a “threshold of concern”. This is the level of species decline at which experts intervene to declare a species in need of special protection. For polar bears, this is defined as a rate of decline of 50% over a 45 year period.

According to the IUCN, since the 1970s, polar bears have declined by 30%. This means that although conditions are rapidly changing in the Arctic, the recorded changes in bear populations have not yet reached the level of concern which would justify CITES intervention.

Thresholds of concern

This complexity of human-ecological interaction shows the need for conservation of polar bears to be holistic and interdisciplinary. Only by taking such an approach can a balanced and sustainable solution to Arctic management be achieved. A start would be to consider lowering the threshold of concern used by CITES to support their decisions.

Australia has also been supporting bear conservation, through captive breeding, and has recently celebrated the birth of a baby polar bear, the second Australia has contributed to the international gene pool. This is an excellent demonstration of how countries can play a role in global conservation issues, even if they are far removed from the problem itself.

virtualwayfarer/Flickr

Join the conversation

24 Comments sorted by

  1. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

    "Several studies have demonstrated a loss of some million square kilometres of sea ice over the last 25 years"
    The supplied link is a study of Antarctic sea ice. The bibliography supplies a number of studies that focus on Arctic sea ice loss.

    If it is summer Arctic sea ice we are talking about, then the loss of extent (and area) over the last 25 years has been considerably more than a million square kilometres, being more in the order of 3-4 million square kilometres.

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Right now, Arctic ice extent is on the high side of average and one can only guess where it will be in a few months as it reached its annual low. I know of no scientific way to show that the loss of ice this coming summer has any connection whatever with claimed global warming. Nor does anyone else.

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    2. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      "Right now, Arctic ice extent is on the high side of average"

      Classic piece of cherry-picking.

      "I know of no scientific way to show that the loss of ice this coming summer has any connection whatever with claimed global warming."

      Classic piece of blame avoidance.

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    3. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      "Right now, Arctic ice extent is on the high side of average"
      False.
      http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

      "I know of no scientific way to show that the loss of ice this coming summer has any connection whatever with claimed global warming. "
      Fortunately, the relevant experts are not limited by your cognitive deficiencies. Every national scientific institution that studies Arctic sea ice has explicitly and repeatedly linked the observed long term decline in extent, area and volume to anthropogenic warming.

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  2. fret Slider

    Developer

    "should we be worried about polar bears?" No.

    The alarmism surrounding the Arctic does have it's lighter moments... http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7139797.stm

    Of course in the real world there is no chance of an ice free summer in the Arctic in 2013. The evidence is the polar bear is doing very well and a peer-reviewed paper on the Davis Strait subpopulation study has been published (Peacock et al. 2013). which concludes that despite sea ice having declined since the 1970s, polar bear numbers…

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    1. Lioneldo Olan

      Performance Artiste

      In reply to fret Slider

      If the sea ice is contracting one would expect the density of bears to increase, as they have nowhere else to go. The fact that bear density on the remaining ice is reaching carrying capacity, far from being "great news", is actually alarming.

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    2. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to fret Slider

      "polar bear numbers in Davis Strait have not only increased to a greater density (bears per 1,000 km2) than other seasonal-ice subpopulations"

      By the time sea ice gets down to 1 km2, the bear density should be incredible.

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    3. fret Slider

      Developer

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      I knew that old chestnut was coming.

      Let's remind ourselves of the ever changing alarmist position shall we....

      "latest modelling studies indicate northern polar waters could be ice-free in summers within just 5-6 years." http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7139797.stm

      The models are junk and everybody knows it. The storm at the Arctic last winter was a media godsend for the panic fraternity, but the ice this years is good and in case you were wondering, it's nowhere near ice free this summer.

      Pip pi.p

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    4. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to fret Slider

      "but the ice this years is good"

      What a shameless piece of cherry-picking. Picking the time of year (winter-autumn) with the lowest average rate of loss of area. Warning: shield your eyes now, because you can't deal with the reality of long term global sea ice loss: http://tamino.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/seaiceanom.jpeg

      "it's nowhere near ice free this summer"

      I doubt that anyone at all is expecting an ice free Arctic Ocean this summer, even if a one person 5 and a half years ago thought it may have been possible. But don't worry, 80% of the September ice volume in the 1970s is gone so it shouldn't be too many more years before that 80% becomes 100%.

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    5. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to fret Slider

      Yeah FS, Most of the models wrt Arctic Sea Ice are way off, call them junk if you wish. Most are predicting ice free at the end of Summer - mid September actually - by mid century.

      Whereas the volume data from PIOMAS is indicating Ice Free in September by around 2015. Your quote is a report on Maslowski's work. Actually Maslowski's prediction based on the NAME model is 2016 +/- 3. And his model is actually predicting a whole range of properties far better than all the other models - water volume…

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    6. fret Slider

      Developer

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Oh do spare us the bog standard (un)skeptical science crap "cherry picking"

      The more these ludicrous predictions are made, the more egg on face you're going to get.

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  3. Glenn Tamblyn

    logged in via Facebook

    One needs to take studies about recoveries in Polar Bear numbers with a pinch of salt when looking at them for indicators of their future population. The rise is likely due to a recovery in numbers from past hunting and says very little about their future populations

    An interesting paper published a year or so ago looked at Polar Bear genetics. It overturned the previous understanding of the evolution of the Polar Bear.

    Previous understanding was that the Polar Bear only evolved around 130150,000…

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  4. Ian L. McQueen

    Retired

    For a more optimistic article about the polar bears, read: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/06/11/newsbytes-polar-bear-population-growing-despite-declining-sea-ice/

    For facts about the arctic ice for the past few years, see:
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/reference-pages/sea-ice-page/

    One of the several charts at that URL is the following: http://arctic-roos.org/observations/satellite-data/sea-ice/observation_images/ssmi1_ice_ext.png

    Note that the amount of ice this year is considerably…

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    1. fret Slider

      Developer

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Poor Mr O'Neil seems to be in what they call "Denial"

      I don't suppose for one moment that he would accept anything that the UK Met Office has to say on the matter, but what they have said is... claims that warming since 1880 is statistically significant are untenable, ie it's natural variation. UK Parliament [HL3050]

      They also say via their press officer...

      Dave Britton (10:48:21) :
      "there has been only a very small amount of warming in the 21st Century. As stated in our response, this is 0.05 degrees Celsius since 1997 equivalent to 0.03 degrees Celsius per decade."
      http://metofficenews.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/met-office-in-the-media-14-october-2012/#comments

      It is now accepted by all (but the most religious) that there has been no warming for at least 17 years.

      Does Mr O'Neill accept the facts or is he sticking with his religion?

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    2. fret Slider

      Developer

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Grant Foster? Er, right.

      Do you always duck the points put to you when they fail to fit your script?

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    3. fret Slider

      Developer

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Remember that the signals we are dealing with are very, very noisy, and it's easy to get misled - or worse still, to mislead others. http://www.woodfortrees.org/

      These days the theory, or rather the tatters that are left of it, is known as iAGW

      it's All Gone Wrong

      When you decide to throw out the findings of the Met Office in favour of a joke blogger, you give us all a good laugh.

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    4. Don Gibbons

      Clerk

      In reply to fret Slider

      Slider seems to have settled the science by substituting it with a simple slogan. Maybe the noisy signals have driven you to such certainty, or maybe it's because you're a tendentious ideologue...I can't tell, it's easy to be misled.

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    5. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to fret Slider

      Looks like the only type of argument Slider actually has is ad hom.

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    6. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to fret Slider

      "worse still, to mislead others."

      Thanks for the admission, Slider.

      "a joke blogger"

      As per usual, nothing but ad hom from Slider.

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