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Saving the Polar Bears - Zer Netmouse
September 27th, 2009
08:07 am

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Saving the Polar Bears
I just got a letter from the NRDC telling me what is by now an all-too-familiar story: Polar Bears are drowning for lack of ice to rest on, starving for lack of ice to hunt on. Cubs die in dens that collapse from unusual rain and insufficient cold to keep the tundra sturdy.

The answer, we are assured by Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and the NRDC, is to make sure the government extends to polar bears every legal protection they can, and prevent Evil Oil People in Alaska from further eliminating the polar bear habitat, and furthermore we need to try to stop global warming.

But wait, I say, if the problem is that they need floating ice (and some people say this is increasingly our problem too, since ice melt speeds global warming by reducing the reflectivity of the planet), why are we aiming tons of effort at the human legal system? That's not going to save the drowning, starving bears, or protect their poor cubs.

Protecting Polar Bears as an endangered species will keep trophy hunters from shooting them, yes, and may help preserve their habitat.

But what we really need to do is figure out how to manufacture floating ice. Or some usable simile of floating ice that has similar temperature, reflectivity, and usability for both Polar bears and their prey, and that we can maintain in their habitat for the period they need over the course of the year. Probably we could do something clever tapping into underwater temperature differentials to cool the "ice" without having to burn fuel or anything stupid like that. And human-manufactured ice could be designed never to freeze in over the heads of drowning polar bears and dolphins.

While we're at it, we could also manufacture some reusable dens along the shore that won't collapse on those poor cubs.

Call on your government, scientists, and science fiction writers to work on that idea, I say, and we might have a chance of saving the polar bears sometime in this century.

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From:cathshaffer
Date:September 27th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
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What's really ironic is that the polar bears are doing fine. They had a great year last year, lots of cubs, worldwide polar bear populations are healthy. The "Save the Polar Bears" campaign is the result of a far future extrapolated scenario projected onto current times to create an increased sense of urgency. I have researched this several times in response to various media campaigns about saving polar bears and can't find any evidence anywhere that there's a big die off going on.
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From:netmouse
Date:September 28th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC)
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What references were you looking at?

According to this FAQ from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is not dated but based on internal references was published after 2005, worldwide population numbers are not well known, but "long-term scientific studies in Canada’s Western Hudson Bay have identified reduced adult weights and cub survivorship, resulting in a decline of that population to an estimated 935 animals -- a 22% decline -- correlated with loss of sea ice. More recent studies of the estimated 1,200 individuals in the Southern Beaufort Sea population in Alaska do not currently show a statistically significant decline, but this population is now experiencing the same pattern of reduced adult weights and cub survival as Western Hudson Bay. While such detailed studies are not available for other polar bear populations, the Service believes they may be facing the same situation, given their similar life history."

That seems like a fairly succinct way to sum up the projected danger. I don't know how much the behavior patterns of Polar Bears vary globally.

this (obviously biased) site also reports that "At the most recent meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group(Copenhagen, 2009), scientists reported that of the 19 subpopulations of polar bears, eight are declining, three are stable, one is increasing, and seven have insufficient data on which to base a decision—this is a change from five that were declining in 2005, five that were stable, and two that were increasing."

According to The National Post, in 2007 the Inuit disagreed with the reported 22% decline in Western Hudson Bay, suggesting that the number of bears there (and in Baffin Bay, which is otherwise listed as an area with insufficient data) is increasing.

Unfortunately, since the references I just gave don't list all the regions of Bears, which can't tell quite how much of this discrepancy is a he-said, she-said kind of situation, and how much is people reporting about different populations. Still, even the "Bears are overpopulated" national post article acknowledges that the amount of ice is decreasing, and the mailer I got that spurred my note indicates in some places it's clearing out as much as three weeks earlier than just a few years ago in the summer in some places.
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From:cathshaffer
Date:September 28th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)
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The Churchill population is the most studied polar bear population because this is the furthest south extent of polar bear range--which also makes it the most sensitive to warmer years. The dates of these reports are important, because 2005-2007 were relatively bad years for the polar bears. 2008-2009 have been fairly good. Link: http://asiaprnews.com/2009/08/18/summer-sea-ice-good-news-for-hudson-bay-polar-bears/

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From:netmouse
Date:September 28th, 2009 01:16 pm (UTC)
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From the link you gave me, "What we’re seeing this year is an aberration compared to the long-term trend," stresses Polar Bears International President, Robert Buchanan, who has been working with polar bears for nearly 20 years, "but essentially the late break-up of ice this year on Hudson Bay means the polar bears, which rely on sea ice to live, have been given more time during spring and summer to hunt and eat seals, and this has allowed them to gain important weight to live off of until freeze-up."

Of course, Polar Bear International is one of the sites I referenced before. I wonder if the "plenty of ice" and "late break-up" situation was in place around the glob and not just local to that population.
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From:cathshaffer
Date:September 28th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
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I think it's pretty natural that PBI would interpret this in the context of their viewpoint and long term goals--and they may be right. But it's arguable which years are the abberation and which are the norm.

My understanding of the polar bear yearly cycle is that they spend the winter hunting on the sea ice, catching seals through their breathing holes. Then when the ice breaks up, they retire to land and fast for 5-6 months. So the extent of the summer sea ice or the presence of sea ice in the summer is not as crucial as the length of that fasting period. If it becomes too long, due to early break up or late freeze up, the polar bears will suffer.

You have a good point that much of the discussion about polar bears focuses on the politics of climate change, and that practical solutions seem to be uncommon. Since they need not just floating chunks of sea ice to hunt, but a solidly frozen expanse of ice, I think it would be hard to manufacture ice. What may be possible is to identify areas of the arctic that continue to freeze and thaw on schedule and to relocate vulnerable populations there. I have also seen it suggested that polar bear preserves could be created in antarctica. That sounds like a BAD idea to me--take a huge, deadly predator and plop it down next door to, say, penguins...hmmm...
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From:netmouse
Date:September 28th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
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You mean penguins *aren't* all special forces Ninjas like in Madagascar? ;)
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From:cathshaffer
Date:September 28th, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC)
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Penguins is practically chickens!
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From:cos
Date:September 30th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
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None of the above, actually :)

If Polar Bears have endangered species protection, then things we do which could destroy their habitat would become legally fraught. When you're talking about, say, forest birds, that puts a legal obstacle in the way of allowing more logging in their old growth forests. When you're talking polar bears, though, the main thing we do to threaten their environment is changing the climate to make it warmer, which will melt their habitat. So the legal obstacles created by endangered species protections for polar bears, are obstacles in the way of doing the things we think will mess up global temperatures.

In other words, this isn't specifically about the polar bears or the ice or even the oil drilling: it's about a way to use existing laws to cut down on climate change pollutants. Congress doesn't need to pass new laws to limit those pollutants if the EPA gets authority to do so under existing laws (and wants to use its authority - which means new legislation is still a good idea even if the EPA gets the authority and uses it, because they could more easily change their minds in the next administration).
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