The future looks dim for Arctic predators
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A recent story about the travails of a federal researcher who is being investigated after documented drowning polar bears drew a record number of page views for Summit Voice — more than 75,000 in two days, which isn’t too bad for an 19-month-old news blog with a full-time staff of one, plus a handful of volunteer citizen journalists.
The scientist, Charles Monnet, is being investigated by the Interior Department’s Inspector General, supposedly for integrity issues and for his management of contracts related to an ongoing polar bear study. This means, of course, that the whole issue instantly became highly politicized in the context of the polar bear’s status as the first animal to be put on the endangered species list because of global warming, and the ongoing economic pressure to drill for more oil off the coast of Alaska.
The story also drew a number of interesting comments, and one of the most interesting themes that emerged was that there appears to be some belief out there that polar bears are just fine; that there are more polar bears than ever before and that there’s no need to do anything to protect them.
It’s a sheer, bald-faced lie. I’d have a lot more respect if those folks just said they don’t care about polar bears, and that being able to buy cheap gasoline is more important to them than protecting an endangered species. I know a lot of people feel like that; I just haven’t met too many who are willing to come right out and say it.
Of course, none of those comments had any references to studies or reports that would back up those claims. As these things go, there’s probably a tiny kernel of truth somewhere deep down.
Perhaps one researcher documented an increase in a local polar bear population in one particular spot. Maybe people are seeing higher concentrations of polar bears in smaller areas because their habitat is shrinking so rapidly. From that evolved the wild claims of exploding polar bear populations. It’s almost as if the people making those claims hope to convince everyone else just by the the sheer volume of repetition.
Most reasonable people know better. Monthly and seasonal satellite measurements clearly tell the story of the Arctic ice pack, and those cameras don’t lie. The ice pack is inexorably melting away, and with it, the habitat the polar bears have evolved with. And it’s happening at a speed far beyond the realm of natural climate variability because we continue to pump heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Scientists in many disciplines have been working on the same questions, and while there are some slight differences in projections of ice melt and the related loss in polar bear habitat, the end result is the same. The very best we can hope for are some remnant populations that will need to be protected from impacts like potential oil spills. Then, perhaps someday if the ice starts to recover in a few centuries, those populations will once again be able to spread out across a wider range.
Here are some of the most recent conclusions with links to the relevant studies.
A USGS survey that looked at carrying capacity estimates that total carrying capacity in the southern Beaufort Sea (near Alaska) will decline by 7 to 10 percent in the next 45 years, and by up to a third in the next 100 years. In some sub-regions, the carrying capacity is likely to decline by half. Globally, total carrying capacity across all ecoregions was projected to drop 10-22 percent from present levels by year 45, 22-32 percent from present levels by year 75, and 20-37 percent from present levels by year 100.
Under models projecting the most ice loss, bears could be completely extirpated from some of the polar ecoregions in half a century. The authors of this particular report explained that their projected rates of of habitat decline and carrying capacity are actually slower than the changes observed during the past two decades.
The bottom line is that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population will probably be gone by mid-century. At least 42 percent of optimal polar bear summer habitat will be lost in that same span. The largest reduction in habitat is is expected in spring and summer. Sea ice will reform in the winter, but the ever-larger retreats of sea ice during the warm season may prevent bears from returning to onshore denning habitat. Read the executive summary here.
Polar bears are on the fast track to extinction, and all the hot about about record polar bear numbers is only hastening their demise.
Filed under: climate and weather, endangered species, energy, Environment, global warming, oil drilling Tagged: | Charles Monnett, endangered species, Environment, global warming, polar bears, Summit County News