Sunday, 16 November 2014

Churchill Polar Bears and Climate Change, 2014


For all the legitimate concerns about industrial tourism and the chaotic regulation of wildlife in remote communities, it’s important not to lose sight of the larger picture. Experts predict that the Arctic will be ice free by 2050, destroying the polar bear’s habitat. I attended a presentation in Churchill on 7th November by three leading climate scientists: Cecilia Bitz, Andy De Rocha and Steve Amstrup and feel strongly that I must share a summary of their findings.

  • There is a clear and strong relationship between temperature and ice extent.
  • Scientists are ‘stunned’ by the unprecedented rate of change since they started studying climate change.
  • There has been a 40% decrease in sea ice in the past 35 years.
  • In 2050, only a remnant of ice may be left.
  • As a result, by the end of the century 4/5 of ring seals may have disappeared.
  • In the 1980’s there were 130 ice free days per year in Hudson Bay.
  • Now there are 160 ice free days, so polar bears have already lost a month of feeding opportunity.

  • In 2007 Amstrup projected that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears could be lost by the middle of the century, and all of them by the end of the century.
  • Since this time, the picture has become even more pessimistic and the situation in the Arctic is deteriorating rapidly
  • The data on the loss of thickness of ice is even worse than the extent: the best estimate is that 70% has been lost over the past 40 years
  • Ice loss leads bears to spend more time on land, and hence increases human / bear conflict
  • Bears consume the blubber from seals and alternative land based food sources such as goose eggs cannot provide the fat they require. They are not carnivorous meat eaters.
  • Polar bears have become incredibly polluted as pollutants bond to fat molecules in their diet. This affects hormones and their immune system; cubs are taking in incredibly polluted milk.


The three scientists addressed climate change sceptics directly:
  • The scientific data on human caused climate change is ‘profoundly clear’.
  • Clearly the warming is unprecedented, and there is no chance another ice age would save us as have such a high concentration of CO2 in atmosphere
  • Natural cycles caused by changes in the orbit of the earth around the sun could only account for far smaller fluctuations than those seen recently
  • Variations in individual years weather and ice cover should not be allowed to obscure the overall trend.

  • Whilst the Churchill polar bear population has recovered in recent years, this is due to restrictions on hunting and the end of military presence in the area, and doesn’t alter the validity of long term population predictions.
  • It took between 1 to 6 million years for brown bears from Ireland to evolve into polar bears, and so it’s completely unrealistic to expect them to be able to adapt to human changes in 50 years. Natural oscillations take place over a far longer period and are smaller in magnitude.
  • Acidification of the ocean could be as much of a threat as warming, leading to a sea dominated by jellyfish as organisms are unable to create shells.
  • Hybrids resulting from polar bears coming to land to breed with grizzly bears are no more than a means of preserving small amounts of polar bear DNA; they resemble grizzlies in lifestyle.


What Can We do?
  • This is a human caused problem that we can fix.
  • In a 2010 paper in Nature, Amstrup concluded that we still have time to save the polar bear, but we need policy and business leaders to make decisions to afford us a sustainable future.
  • Climate change is a question of inter-generational fairness as cost of damage today will be paid in future generations.
  • The most important action is at the ballot box to elect policy leaders.
  • America has to take a lead as China is only prepared to take action if they can be reassured that they will not lose competitive advantage.
  • Technological innovation provides some grounds for hope in energy conservation, but geo-engineering to attempt to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is not likely to be feasible
  • Whilst we should be concerned about localised impact from fossil fuel extraction as the Arctic opens up for exploration, the real issue is the amount of CO2 that we are putting into the atmosphere.
  • Human over-population is also a significant concern.
  • Significant new scientific literature due to be released in the next month paints an unremittingly serious picture about climate and therefore the plight of polar bears.


In the midst of this gloom there is a glimmer of hope: as I returned to Europe last week, news broke of an historical agreement on limiting emissions by the United States and China. It's significant for the principle of reduction rather than the wholly inadequate magnitude, and may well be blocked by a Republican Congress in America. Yet, we have to hope that our politicians have enough foresight to at least mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Whether it's too late for polar bears is an open question.


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