The Polar Bear, Climate Change’s Poster Child, Ignites Controversy
By Jason Bittel
Twenty years ago, polar bears made people think of Coca-Cola. Ten years ago, the bruins became the face of climate change because their melting Arctic ice habitat perfectly captured the dangers of a warming world. More recently, as a direct result of the bears' environmental poster child status, science deniers have begun using them in attempts to turn the argument for climate science on its head. But now, there's no way to talk about polar bears without talking about one particular viral video.
You probably saw it. A bear, staggering with weakness from advanced starvation, with loose skin, wispy white fur, frothing mouth—there's no doubt that the video, captured by photographer Paul Nicklen and filmmakers from the conservation group Sea Legacy, is a tough watch. In the National Geographic version, the first subtitle makes the video's implications clear: "This is what climate change looks like."
Why? Because climate change is projected to sap the Arctic of its characteristic sea ice. And without ice, polar bears can't get to the fatty seals they've evolved to eat.
But is the video really the slam-dunk indictment of a warming world that it appears to be? Well, yes and no.
"The polar bear in the image appears to be starving," said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International. But York said that for this individual bear, there's no way to know exactly what's causing that starvation. The factors could range from old age or injury to disease or some other unseen complication that has prevented the bear from catching prey.
In the bigger picture, though, the message is correct, he said. "Is this what reduced survival looks like? Absolutely. Is that consistent with what we expect to see more frequently in a warming world? Yes."
But taking a closer look at the video reveals something different about the polar bears' food supply and its connection to climate change. Andrew Derocher, a polar bear scientist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, noted that while the video was released as the first snows drifted across the Northeast this December, the footage was shot in the summertime. And during that season, he sees bears that look like this all the time.
You see, polar bears live a life opposite that of most animals—winter is their bread and butter. While some birds fly south to warmer climes and squirrels and bats log off for a few months of hibernation, the great white bears of the north take advantage of the cold and the ice it brings to feast upon every blubber-rich body they can find. Ringed seals and bearded seals make up the bulk of a polar bear's diet, and both aquatic mammals rely on sea ice for feeding, pupping, and resting. And so when summer rolls around each year and the sea ice recedes, the bears' feast turns to famine. Some starve to death as a result.
It's also worth noting that the bear in this video is an adult male, said Derocher, who wrote the book on polar bear biology and behavior. Sometimes these guys have, let's say, different priorities. Prime feeding season coincides with prime mating season, so if a male past its prime is still investing tons of time and energy into pursuing females, he might just find himself courting to the point of exhaustion. "These males walk a fine line on the energy in versus energy out equation," said Derocher.
In fact, York said the two most likely ways for an adult bear to die are either to get shot by a hunter or to slowly wither away to nothing. The thing is, there are generally considered to be 19 populations of polar bears scattered along the Arctic Circle. Most are exceptionally remote, and for this reason, we humans don't usually witness their death throes.
Now, you might think that a viral video would be good for raising awareness about the issues this species faces. And indeed, many people who might not have initially felt invested in preserving the Arctic may now be thinking about that polar bear struggling to stand up the next time someone said climate change is a hoax.
But here's the rub, as York, Derocher, and many of their fellow experts see it. Climate change is an enormous, complex problem that will affect the globe in different ways. And while we have tons of data that suggest a warmer Arctic will be terrible, horrible, no good, very bad news for polar bears, this one anecdotal account of a starving bear is just that, anecdotal. And when you pin a single bear to a phenomenon best understood by analyzing decades of climate, sea ice, and population data, well, you paint a pretty big target for science deniers to attack.
And attack they have. On a blog called Polar Bear Science, zoologist Susan Crockford—whose blog, a recent study determined, is the primary source for around 80 percent of other climate denier blogs—has seized on the polar bear video as evidence that climate change is intentionally exaggerated.
"One starving bear is not scientific evidence that man-made global warming has already negatively affected polar bears, but it is evidence that some activists will use any ploy to advance their agenda and increase donations," wrote Crockford.
Half of her point—the part about over-extrapolating—is valid. But it would be unfortunate if that kernel of truth lent credibility to her other posts, which include snippets of studies that suggest polar bears are doing just fine. (Crockford has never studied polar bears in the field, nor published work about them in a journal; Derocher said, "She doesn't seem to understand the ecology of the species that well.")
One of the arguments Crockford and other deniers like to make is that polar bear populations have not yet collapsed, and that this is evidence that the bears can and will adapt to a lack of Arctic ice. And it's true that the population hovers around 25,000 to 26,000 polar bears globally, as York estimates, though the information on Russian populations isn't necessarily reliable. So it's not as if we're down to our last dozen or so polar bears, as we are with other endangered species like vaquitas or Attwater's prairie chickens.
But the science indicates that the worst is yet to come.
The warmest year ever recorded in the Arctic was 2016, with record-low sea ice levels to match. And even if we manage to limit climate change to 2° C (3.6° F), some experts project that the Arctic could still go completely ice-free sometime this century. We're talking about conditions the likes of which haven't been seen in this region for some 1,500 years.
"All 19 populations of bears are seeing reduction in their habitat," said Derocher. Three of these have experienced marked declines, and for many others we don't have good enough data to make those assessments. But still, Derocher said there will come a point when the number of ice-free days reaches a tipping point and the populations will start to tank. Polar bears simply cannot survive without seals, said Derocher. And the only way bears can capture seals with regularity is with the aid of sea ice.
The trouble is that it's very difficult to predict exactly when all of this will occur. This is why Derocher and others look at the situation on a scale of the next three generations. "In that time frame, it does not look good for polar bears over the vast majority of the Arctic," he said.
While a few bears may be able to scrape out a living while eating a less than optimal number of seals, nothing the experts have seen indicates that polar bears can withstand these sorts of changes in the population. Down at the genetic level, the species is just too dependent on the high-fat marine mammal diet.
"I think that's something that's missed in the public discourse for climate scientists and for polar bear biologists. We would love to be wrong," said York. "We'd love to find something to suggest, 'Hey, everything's not as bad as we think it is.' But we've yet to find those things."
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
- 18 Cookbooks for Building a Diverse and Just Food System ... ›
- 19 Individuals and Groups Building Stronger Black Communities ... ›
- 8 Cookbooks We're Reading This Fall - EcoWatch ›
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expanded its list of potentially toxic hand sanitizers to avoid because they could be contaminated with methanol.
- Here's How to Clean Your Groceries During the COVID-19 Outbreak ... ›
- Why Hand-Washing Really Is as Important as Doctors Say - EcoWatch ›
- If You're Worried About the New Coronavirus, Here's How to Protect ... ›
- Vodka Won't Protect You From Coronavirus, and 4 Other Things to ... ›
By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
- 4 Exciting Dam-Removal Projects to Watch - EcoWatch ›
- Jump-Starting the Dam Removal Movement in the U.S. - EcoWatch ›
- Boom: Removing 81 Dams Is Transforming This California Watershed ›
- Sea Level Rise Is Speeding up Along Most of the U.S. Coast ... ›
- Protecting Mangroves Can Prevent Billions of Dollars in Global ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›
- 300 Million People Worldwide Could Suffer Yearly Flooding by 2050 ... ›
- Sea Level Rise Could Put 2.4 Million U.S. Coastal Homes at Risk ... ›
By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
- 7 Amazing New Fish Species Discovered in 2017 - EcoWatch ›
- Millions of Seahorses Wind Up Dead on the Black Market for This ... ›
Presidential hopeful Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion plan Tuesday to boost American investment in clean energy and infrastructure.
- Green New Deal Champion AOC Will Serve on Biden Climate Panel ... ›
- Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces Unveil Improved Climate Policy ... ›