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31Dec 2012

Pacific Standard, with big boost from Salon: Reporter finds getting the true low-down on polar bears is a BEAR

Pacific Standard, with big boost from Salon: Reporter finds getting the true low-down on polar bears is a BEAR

Salon just put up an intriguing long yarn from writer Zac Unger. It reads like the transcript of an engrossing seminar in a journalism school on the confusing ground that reporters must cross while trying to learn whom to trust as a source.

   Good on Salon for giving it more visibility. The piece originally ran elsewhere, where we'd have missed it, so to give due, primary credit ...

   The Pacific Standard hed with its clear suggestion of ambiguity is better than Salon's "The Polar Bear Just Might Outlive Us All." For one thing, whole species do rather commonly outlive individual members of other species. Second, the chance that the white bear will outlast humanity seems awful slim. So it makes no sense. Also, the idea that polar bears not only may not go extinct in the next century or so but may, if we don't go shoot them all, have a good chance for millenniums more is a proper inference from this story but it is hardly the main point.

    The piece is long and a bit of a ramble. It could have used an editor to tighten and take out some of the Zac's-angst centrism wth its dash of jaded wise-guy. Not too much, but the conversationally discursive style seems to me to go off course a few times. But as a portrait of an earnest journalist trying to get well inside a story and to learn who are the true experts and who are not it is a must-read. In short, the sources who he expected to find as the good guys were prickly isolationists who distrust the press immensely, and the ones who surprised him with their hunches and data were the friendliest and appeared to be the most data-driven. Thus fuzzy and elusive reality threatened to undermine the crystalline rationale behind Unger's decision to uproot his family while pursuing a definitive Great Polar Bear Book. Undermine, but not quite cause to founder. This article is extracted from the book. It is to be published in Feburary.

   This piece and presumably the upcoming book may be embraced by denialists as a counter to what they see as grotesque exaggeration of climate change's impacts. That'd be a mistake. Unger seems happy with a bleak-enough middle ground - that the big bears' range may shrink drastically. But that doesn't mean zero. One gathers from this article that Unger suspects that in some places - such as around Greenland,  Canada's Arctic archipelago, and Hudson Bay - they could remain fat for a very long time. Even if it is to be so, a Siberia and North Slope without polar bears is a turn for the worse.








Thanks Kassie. Points taken. But Unger might be cut a little more slack. Among his points is only that chances of extinction for polar bears are probably low for the rest of the century - or at least, far from certain. Yet the shorthand message of many activists is that the bears are on a fast slide toward extinction in the wild, as in zero and fairly soon.

He does seem to agree that they may well be extirpated by loss of ice and thus food from most of their present range. It will be one tragedy among many as the warming climate runs myriad species down to zero. That a remnant polar bear population could persist in 2100 in and around the northern shore of Greenland and in the Canadian archipelago is no reason to feel at all complacent about climate change - clearly Unger is not feeling cheerful about it. Plus, given what humankind has done so far about this mess, things could easily get far worse after 2100.

I don't agree. The polar bear’s predicament is clear and urgent, not complicated and uncertain as Unger implies. As specialized predators of ice-dependent Arctic seals, polar bears need sea ice as a hunting platform. But manmade global warming is melting that ice, posing a mortal threat to the bear and its ecosystem.

In the face of the scientific consensus that bears are in major trouble, Unger cites the opinion of one goose biologist. Polar bear experts, on the other hand, are quite certain that the animals cannot switch from a diet of energy-rich seals to terrestrial foods as the sea ice melts. Based on already declining population numbers and cub survival rates in some populations and the rate of Arctic sea-ice melt, experts say that more than two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be gone in less than 40 years.

That dire warning may be too conservative, since the ice is actually melting far faster than the sea-ice projections used in those studies. Arctic sea-ice extent hit a record low this summer, plunging to half its average size. If this pace continues, summer sea ice will likely disappear completely within 20 years. Polar bears just can't cope with the unprecedented speed of this fundamental change to their environment.

We should protect our planet's precious biodiversity for its own sake. But we must also understand that the Arctic meltdown speeds warming around the globe. That’s because summer sea ice has reflected much of the sun's energy back into space, acting like a planetary sun hat. As the ice melts, warming accelerates and thawing Arctic permafrost releases additional greenhouse gases. That threatens not only the polar bear, but every other being on the planet.

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