Photo by Jon Aars / Norwegian Polar Institute
Fundamental rule of journalism: be wary of a scientific study headlined “may” – as in “Polar bears may be extinct on Svalbard in 50 years,” according to a Norwegian Polar Institute press release issued this week.
So besides looking for “yes, but” qualifiers in the study, scanning the internet for the usual naysayers seems in order.
For starters, the central figure of the institute’s report is quoted as asserting polar bears in the Barents Sea region, comprised of Svalbard and western Russia, will “largely be gone.”
“In 50 years the polar sea in the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer, the ice will melt much earlier in the spring and freezing will take place later in the autumn,” said Dag Vongraven, an institute researcher who for the past 11 years has headed a specialist group on polar bear management across the entire Arctic. “The perennial ice will be completely gone. The number of polar bears on the planet will be reduced and in Svalbard polar bears will largely be gone.”
With that in mind, the key findings of the study do indeed reinforce a vast collection of previous research offering dire warnings about the future of Svalbard’s bears, climate change and Earth as an inhabitable planet as we know it.
The highlight data point of this week’s bear report is the sea is warming twice as fast as 25 years ago, with forecasts of future drastic losses of sea adding to the already considerable lost mass (especially of thicker “multi-year” ice, which has been largely replaced by thin “annual” ice that only forms during the colder months). There is also a heightened concern about increasing ingestion of environmental toxins, with polar bears considered among the planet’s “most polluted” species since they reside at the top of the food chain.
Because the Gulf Stream means Svalbard has a relatively mild climate – plus the finding that climate change is happening faster in the archipelago than the rest of the Arctic on average – the ice the bears depend upon to hunt for prey is already largely gone from the western coastlines during the spring hunting season, and rapidly shrinking in the north and east areas where the bear population is largest.
Hence the claim that polar bears may disappear from Svalbard while continuing to exist, if not exactly thrive, in other Arctic areas.
“I think polar bears will mostly only be found in northern Canada and Greenland in 50 years, just west of the polar basin in an area that is often called the ‘Last Ice Area,'” Vongraven said.
It’s not the first claim Svalbard’s bears may vanish: A study a year ago asserted the bears are among the least threatened under current climate conditions, despite the large loss of sea ice, but facing the most drastic best-to-worst scenario and among those most likely to go extinct during the next several decades. That study cites increasing threats to bears in Svalbard such as prolonged fasting and reduced nursing of cubs by mothers as vanishing sea ice means longer periods of being away from food sources.
The fact Svalbard’s bears are among the “least threatened” currently despite the sea ice loss is a foundational argument in a contrarian article published Thursday by Susan Crockford of Polar Bear Science, considered by mainstream scientists and climate change deniers alike to be the foremost media presence in representing the skeptics’ point of view.
The article, headlined “Barents Sea polar bears thriving despite huge summer ice loss: spring research results are in,” starts by declaring ” the results show that despite having to deal with the most extreme loss of summer sea ice in the entire Arctic, polar bears in this region continue to thrive. These facts show no hint of that impending catastrophic decline in population size we keep hearing is just around the corner. No tipping point here.”
But as with the polar institute using the word “extinct” when that’s less than a certainty, Crockford’s use of “thriving” doesn’t quite match the data she cites from the institute – “maintaining” is a more fitting description when it comes to the population, physical size and overall health of the bears.
The body mass of male bears, for example, is slightly less this year than the last survey in 2019, “but this amount of year-to-year variance is normal,” Corckford writes. “Some male bears were in much worse condition in the late 1990s and early 2000s than they have been since 2015 and the analysis of the data, which does not include 2021, concluded: There is no significant trend over time.”
The estimated polar bear population for the entire Barents Sea region has remained roughly the same for the past couple of decades: somewhere between 1,900 and 3,600. Svalbard’s bear population is roughly 300 bears (although the bogus “more polar bears than people” claim is still widely made), although it varies considerably as some move to/from ice areas north and east of the archipelago. The global polar bear population, also remaining fairly steady, is estimated at 26,000.
Vongraven, incidentally, acknowledges in this week’s report the increasing visibility of climate change deniers in recent years – and declares that’s partially why there’s an increasing number of dire reports being released.
“Before the (specialist group) meeting in Tromsø in 2009, a physical meeting in the specialist group for polar bears and a report every four years was enough, but after 2009 this has been insufficient because there has been a constant demand for information about the polar bear’s status and future prospects,” he said. “But the increase is also due to the fact that climate deniers and this type of force have become much more active, and polar bears as a symbol of climate change have been reduced as ‘climate hysteria.'”