Another Summer of Polar Bears and Thin Ice

July 13th, 2018 by Leave a Comment

By Harold Brown

Hot summer days once again provide the backdrop for highlighting threats to wildlife icons and providing dramatic publicity for climate change activists. Threats to Arctic icons heighten the drama, and the emblem of polar bears “in danger” and attacking humans becomes the clarion call for climate “solutions.”

The London Times, in a 2009 book review, called the polar bear “the animal of the new millennium” and “an emblem of despair.” It gained a huge emblematic boost in 2004, when The Wall Street Journal published the findings of two federal investigators who saw four dead bears floating off Alaska’s coast during polar bear and whale aerial surveys. Images of drowning bears further inflamed passions in Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth” the following year.

Just this month, a Canadian man died protecting his children from a polar bear; a polar bear tour group suggested “nutritional stress” typically leads the bears to attack.

The “danger” that has motivated so much press and research is the disappearance of broken and floating Arctic sea ice where the bears hunt for ringed seals, their favorite prey. When the sea ice melts in spring, the bears hunt the seals, which inhabit areas of shifting ice.

Spring is the most crucial feeding season; the birth of cubs in autumn and winter hibernation deplete body fat, which must be replaced in spring and summer. Swimming long distances while hunting in areas with little ice to support a hungry bear and its prey reduces the restoration of body fat.

Thus the refrain, “Thinning ice thins the population.” But the emblem doesn’t support the despair. If the Arctic is warming and its ice thinning, polar bear numbers should be decreasing. They aren’t. Counts are incomplete, but the incomplete numbers show increases, not decreases.

As for the four dead bears observed in 2004: They were among 55 bears spotted from an airplane at about 1,500 feet during 29 flights over a month and a half, covering 16,000 miles. There were no convincing photographs; they were not examined for cause of death. In fact, it was suggested they “drowned during a period of high winds.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) publishes a “Redlist” of species deemed in danger of extinction. It has listed the polar bear as “vulnerable” since 1982, except for a 10-year period (1996-2006) as “lower risk/conservation dependent.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has classified the species as “threatened” since 2008.

A report from the First International Meeting on the Polar Bear in 1967 stated Alaska’s problem with the count of bears; “all have been based on tenuous assumptions and extrapolation of fragmentary data.” That has dogged these animal counts, and not just in Alaska.

The same conference reported two disparate estimates of the world’s polar bears, 17,000-19,000 reported in 1959, and 5,000-8,000 in 1961. Since then, estimates have generally increased (see chart), with the highest in 2015.

Experts are so convinced that thinning ice endangers the polar bear, however, that the change in bear numbers is irrelevant.

The desperate attempts to associate sea ice disappearance with declining polar bear numbers is illustrated in contradictory statements (in the same paragraph) in a 2015 report of the IUCN:

“Several subpopulations are either productive (increasing?) or stable despite sea-ice loss.”

“…we performed population projections using assumed and estimated linear relationships between habitat availability (presumably sea-ice) and Polar Bear abundance.”

In other words, the group assumes polar bear populations depend on the declining sea ice, even after acknowledging some of them don’t.

The assumption that polar bears will starve without seals on sea ice if oceanic conditions change is short-sighted. Bears in ice-free areas are found to consume a variety of foods, including birds, plants, even marine algae. In one study, 85 percent of fecal deposits (scat) contained at least one type of plant.

The uncertainty of polar bear population trends is emphasized by the fact that the three declining (geographic) subpopulations reported among 19 counted make up only 15.7 percent of the estimated bear total.

The World Wildlife Foundation lists several difficulties in counting polar bears: They are mostly solitary and live in the Arctic, where they are white against a white background (snow and ice). Further, there are remote subpopulations whose numbers have never been estimated and likely never will be.

The WWF conclusion is telling: “How many bears are there? It’s an educated guess at best.”

Unfortunately, melodramatic negative images are better fund-raising motivation than positive numbers.


University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of, “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonprofit, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (July 13, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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