Blue Marble - February 2013

Polar Bears Need Love…and a Plan

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 4:02 AM PST

United States Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

A team of leading polar bear ecologists called for nations to make plans now for dealing with ongoing—and soon to be critical—threats to the survival of polar bears. The biggest problem for this iconic Arctic species is the mindblowingly fast disappearance of sea ice. Their paper appears in Conservation Letters.

For instance, last month (January 2013) the average coverage of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was 409,000 square miles (1.06 million square kilometers) below the 1979 to 2000 January average. That's the sixth-lowest January extent in the satellite record, says the National Snow & Ice Data Center. Plus 2012 saw the lowest ever summer coverage of sea ice in the Arctic. 

The 19 polar bear populations identified by the IUCN: Andrew E. Derocher, et al, Conservation Letters (2013). DOI: 10.1111/conl.12009

It's not going to be easy to mitigate these challenges, the authors warn. There are 19 populations of polar bears worldwide. Some—like the Western Hudson Bay (WH, in the map above) bears and the Davis Strait (DS) bears—experience complete sea ice melt in summer that forces them onto land where they've got nothing to eat and can only burn through their own fat until the ocean refreezes.

For other populations—the Chukchi Sea (CS), Laptev Sea (LS), and Barents Sea (BS)—many bears remain on drifting pack ice and multiyear ice year round. The problem is that a lot of that pack ice is now retreating far beyond the continental shelf where ocean productivity is higher and polar bear prey more numerous. Meanwhile multiyear ice is disappearing rapidly throughout almost all the Arctic. 

Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

Here's what we know happens to bears forced ashore for too long in summer, or kept far offshore on multiyear ice:

  • declines in body condition
  • declines in body size
  • declines in reproductive rates
  • declines in survival rates
  • declines in population size
  • declines in sea ice denning habitat
  • altered movements and distribution

How bad will it get? In an earlier paper one author predicted the extinction of polar bears in two thirds of their range by 2050. That's because low ice years will increase as long as greenhouse-gas-induced warming continues—until almost all years will be bad for polar bears. For example:

  • Adult male mortality from starvation is predicted to increase to 28-48 percent in any year when the fasting period is 30 days longer than in recent years.
  • The possible effects on other age and sex classes have not been modeled but are predicted to be more severe.
  • Some years will continue to be better for polar bears and others poorer, even as the frequency of poor years increases until all are poor years.
  • The first occurrences of exceptionally poor years are likely to present a near-term critical challenge to polar bear conservation.

The authors write:

When superimposed over the long-term declining trend, annual variability in sea ice makes it increasingly likely that we will soon see a year where sea ice availability for some polar bear populations is below thresholds for vital-rates. Malnutrition at previously unobserved scales may result in catastrophic population declines and numerous management challenges.

If you have the stomach for it, there's a desperately tragic video of a polar bear mother and her two cubs dying of starvation here. Be forewarned: this is graphic and ghastly. But it's also a sign of what's happening now and what's to come for many many more bears in the future. Knowledge of these kinds of events was one of the reasons this paper was written, lead author, and author of Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Behavior, Andrew Derocher told me.

Orphaned polar bear cubs being sent to a zoo: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

It's not just about bears either. Starving bears forced ashore are already a threat to local communities and that's only likely to get worse in the near future. The authors write:

The most intensive program for dealing with human-bear interactions, the Polar Bear Alert program in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, includes extensive hazing, relocation, and temporary housing of bears to mitigate conflict during the ice-free period. That program is expensive and may not be easily applied in small northern communities with limited resources. Nonetheless, we encourage alternatives to killing problem bears, which is a common outcome in northern communities. The Churchill program was established before the effects of climate change were recognized and it is unclear whether it will remain adequate as warming continues. Bears temporarily held in captivity are not currently fed so the cost of temporary holding will increase when the ice-free period extends beyond the fasting capacity of captive bears. Less-expensive options such as reducing attractants and securing storage of food should be included along with plans for increased deterrent capabilities. Training and equipping community polar bear monitors, along with extensive public education and inter-jurisdictional agreements, should be planned to help assure human safety.

Projections of cumulative months per decade where optimal polar bear habitat will be either lost (red) or gained (blue) from 2001–2010 to 2041–2050. Insets show average annual cumulative area of optimal habitat (right y-axis, line plot) for four 10-year periods in the 21st century (x-axis midpoints), and their associated percent. Larger version hereUSGS

Derocher also pointed me towards this successful World Wildlife Fund Canada project to protect villagers from hungry, shore-bound bears in the Hamlet of Arviat, Nunavut.

Among the authors' other concerns:

  • Polar bears are still hunted throughout the Arctic except in Norway and Russia. "Existing harvest management methods are inadequate for declining populations that, by definition, have no sustainable harvest."
  • Feeding some bears might become necessary to keep people safe. "Diversionary feeding could be a viable short-term tool to draw bears away from settlements or industrial facilities." But possible negatives include: "the potential for disease and parasite transmission as well as human-wildlife conflicts may increase as other species such as Arctic fox, wolves, and grizzly bears are drawn into diversionary feeding locations​."
  • Feeding might also be needed to keep bears alive in areas where they might not otherwise survive. [How sad is that?]
  • Some bears might need to be sent to high-quality zoos for captive breeding.
  • Some bears might need to be euthanized if they've starved beyond rehabilitation.

The authors conclude:

Considering the global attention paid to polar bears, managers will be forced to respond to sudden changes in environmental conditions that negatively affect polar bears. We believe that managers and policy makers who have anticipated the effects, consulted with stakeholders, defined conservation objectives, created enabling legislation, and considered possible management actions will be most able to effectively respond to large-scale negative changes.

Andrew Derocher told me: "One thing we try to make clear is that we don't necessarily recommend any of these options but lay them out for consideration and discussion. Further, we don't view these desperate measures as a replacement for dealing with greenhouse gasses.  If we don't deal with climate change we won't have any polar bear habitat left."

The paper:

  • Andrew E. Derocher, Jon Aars, Steven C. Amstrup, Amy Cutting, Nick J. Lunn, Péter K. Molnár, Martyn E. Obbard, Ian Stirling, Gregory W. Thiemann, Dag Vongraven, Øystein Wiig, Geoffrey York. Rapid ecosystem change and polar bear conservation. Conservation Letters (2013). DOI:10.1111/conl.12009

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What's Killing Minnesota's Moose?

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 4:42 PM PST

Minnesota's iconic moose are in such bad shape that the state called off the 2013 hunting season on Wednesday. The heartiest herd, located in the northeastern region of the state, is down to around 2,700 animals, a 35 percent drop from last year and a startling 65 percent drop since 2008. Though the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources canceled hunting season, it stressed that hunters are not to blame for this worrisome news. "The state's moose population has been in decline for years but never at the precipitous rate documented this winter," said MDNR commissioner Tom Landwehr. "It reaffirms the conservation community's need to better understand why this iconic species of the north is disappearing."

Though the sharp decline has state officials somewhat baffled, many members of the conservation community feel climate change is at fault. Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, put it this way: "With the high temperatures in the summer, moose seek out shelter rather than feeding. Nutritional status declines, and they become more vulnerable to disease and parasites. It's like a person who smokes is much more vulnerable to other diseases, and that can be associated with mortality."

Could Nemo Inspire More Dubious Climate Change Coverage?

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 2:16 PM PST

Weather forecasts predict that Snowstorm Nemo will be highly unusual in its intensity—the worst blizzard the Northeast has seen in ages. Already, thousands of flights have been canceled and people are scrambling to stock up on emergency supplies. So it might seem like now would be the perfect opportunity for the media to sound the alarm about the connection between climate change and extreme weather. But a new study finds that exactly the opposite is true: When it gets cold out, some prominent newspaper opinion writers start hammering out their next attempt to debunk global warming

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus about the long-term phenomenon, newspaper op-ed pages are most likely to opine about how climate change isn't real when seasonal temperatures dip. According to a new study published in Climatic Science, annual and seasonal deviations from mean temperatures can explain attitudes (both positive and negative) expressed in 2,166 opinion pieces between 1990 and 2009 in five major newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Houston Chronicle. (It also demonstrated that national public opinion polls aligned with temperature anomalies.)

During heat waves or temperature spikes, the percentage of newspaper columns that agreed with climate change rose. But when winters were rough or temperatures fell, the percentage of disagreement ratcheted up. Lead author and University of British Columbia climate scientist Simon Donner told Mother Jones it was difficult to explain such correlations, but he and his co-author took a stab at it, this way, in the paper:

Furthermore, editors may be more likely to write about climate change or to accept a submission on the subject during or after and [sic] anomalously warm season. Therefore, the relationship between climate variability and the opinion data may arise not solely from people viewing weather or climate anomalies as proof or disproof of climate change, but from the anomalies serving as a reminder of the issue of climate change and as “hooks” for opinion articles.

The problem with writing opinion articles supporting climate change exclusively during heat waves or slamming it during cooler seasons is that it fails to consider that the phenomenon is really "a long-term average," Donner says. "If next decade is warmer than this decade, it doesn't mean every day in next decade is warmer than every day in this decade. There's still going to be variability in the system."

If the public and newspapers are going to trust that climate change is real, even when it's cold outside, scientists and educators also have to step up and be more vocal. "We've got to talk about climate change not just when there's a good 'hook' to talking about it, but even you know, on unusually cold days in the summer," Donner adds.

North Carolina Moves to Toss Out Regulators

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 1:29 PM PST

The North Carolina state senate has approved a bill to fire all the members of the states' regulatory bodies, including all the members of the Utilities Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission, the Environmental Management Commission, and the Wildlife Resources Commission.

The bill, which would affect 131 regulators, will now be considered in the state house. Dumping all the current members of the commissions would allow the newly instated Republican governor, Pat McCrory, to replace them. The Charlotte Observer has more on the plan. As you might imagine, Democrats are livid:

"I think it is a breathtaking and unprecedented power grab — there's no other way to describe it," said Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake, adding that removing everyone at once means the panels lose expertise in things such as regulating power companies and coastal issues.
"Look, they won. I understand that Gov. McCrory gets to make appointments," Stein said, "but their throwing the entire thing out so they can put their folks on is just wrong."

While trying to deny that it's a political play, Republican lawmakers basically said that yes, that's what it is:

The new "administration may see fit to have the people on boards and commissions that, let's say, are more like minded and who are willing to carry out the desires, if you will, or the philosophy of the new administration," [Sen. Bill] Rabon told committee members.

The Observer editorialized against the bill on Friday, calling it a "dangerous power grab." The paper also points out how the bill would affect some of the state's most important environmental regulatory bodies:

In some instances, it strips requirements that have been seen as protecting the public’s interest. At the Coastal Resources Commission, for instance, the governor would no longer have to appoint at least one person associated with a conservation organization. He would, however, have to appoint two experienced in land development. At the Environmental Management Commission, the governor would no longer have to appoint a doctor with experience in the health effects of environmental pollution; he would still be required to appoint a person who is employed by or recently retired from an industrial manufacturing facility.

Ousting all the regulators could dramatically affect coastal planning. North Carolina is among the states that are already seeing effects from sea level rise. But last year, the legislature decided to pretend climate change doesn't exist rather than let it interfere in their coastal development plans, voting to bar state scientists from factoring sea level rise into coastal projections.

SLIDESHOW: The Art of Visualizing Climate Change

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 9:18 AM PST

This week we've taken a spin inside POLARSEEDS, a new exhibit at the City College of New York open through next week, that uses visual and audio art—from photographs to "sonifications"—to explain the science behind Greenland's melting glaciers. In this last dispatch, graphic designer Ina Saltz explains how artists can translate scientific data into lush visualizations—"an art and a science all of its own," she says. Meanwhile, game designer Ethan Ham tries his luck at "The Polar Game," a custom-built video game where players manipulate cloud cover to keep rising seas at bay.

Underweight Babies Linked to Air Pollution

| Fri Feb. 8, 2013 7:52 AM PST

Women who are exposed to air pollution generated by cars, power plants, and heating and cooling systems are more likely to have a baby that is born underweight, according to new research published this week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Low birth weight—defined as anything below 5.5 pounds—is linked to negative outcomes for babies, including increased mortality, chronic health problems, and stunted mental and physical development. The study, which is billed as the largest survey to date, looked at birth weight data on 3 million births recorded at 14 sites in nine different countries (across North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia). Researchers analyzed ambient air quality data for the area during the woman's pregnancy. They found that in the places places they studied, "the higher the pollution rate, the greater the rate of low birth weight."

And, as one of the lead researchers noted in a statement, they saw effects even if there weren't crazy high levels of air pollution. "What's significant is that these are air pollution levels to which practically everyone in the world is commonly exposed," said Tracey Woodruff, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California in San Francisco. "These microscopic particles, which are smaller than the width of a human hair, are in the air that we all breathe." 

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Gore Backs Harvard Divestment Campaign

| Thu Feb. 7, 2013 11:27 AM PST

In December, we reported on students on campuses across the country who have been working to get their universities to drop their investments in fossil fuels. Harvard's divestment campaign got a big boost on Wednesday as Al Gore—the former vice-president, climate crusader, and Harvard alum—backed their efforts.

"Students here at Harvard have raised the question of divestment," Gore said in a speech on campus. "I cannot fail to address the issue, even at the risk of sounding impolite and undiplomatic. First of all, if I were a student, I would support what you’re doing. But if I were a board member I would do what I did when we took up the apartheid issue. This is an opportunity for learning and the raising of awareness, for the discussion of sustainable capitalism."

"The students here at Harvard who are seized by the moral imperative to grab hold of this climate crisis and find ways to raise awareness inspire me," Gore said.

A Harvard spokesman previously told Mother Jones that the university "has a strong presumption against divestment" in fossil fuels. But Gore's remarks offered 350.org and the students behind Divest Harvard some high-profile encouragement.

"It was incredible to hear someone like Gore applaud the work that young people like us across the country are doing to solve our generation's most pressing problem," said Hannah Borowsky, a member of Divest Harvard. "Five months ago, no one knew what divestment was. Now students are organizing for it on over 250 campuses, and we've gained the nation's attention. It's really starting to feel like this movement is going to change the world."

CHARTS: You Will Spend $22,000 on Gas Over Your Car's Lifespan

| Thu Feb. 7, 2013 9:38 AM PST

jcarlosn/Flikr

As a country, the US is the biggest crude oil consumer in the world, spending $1.5 billion on the stuff every day.

About 40 percent of the money Americans spend on gas goes to private and publicly traded oil companies, a new analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists found. Here's where the rest of it ends up:

pie chart

Interestingly, the gas station makes only 81 cents of the $40. The bottled water sold in gas stations can be far more profitable per dollar than the gas.

This is What a Melting Glacier Sounds Like

| Thu Feb. 7, 2013 4:06 AM PST
Jonathan Perl listens to one of his custom-built climate "sonifications."

If a glacier melts in the Arctic and there's no one around, does it make a sound? Jonathan Perl thinks it does. The City College of New York musicologist was asked by climatologist Marco Tedesco to translate data records on Greenland's melting ice into sound. The result is a series of "sonifications," on display through next week at CCNY's POLARSEEDS exhibit, that combine quantitative data with music to create an audio snapshot of climate change. Steady, long-term changes that are invisible to the eye jump out to the ear, Perl says. Case in point: When melt records came in for 2012's record-breaking summer, Perl had to completely rebuild his soundscapes. "The data is so much off the charts in 2012 that the sounds just explode, and all the other sounds are so much mellower in comparison. That showed me there's this huge, unmistakable change that is so obvious when you listen to it."

Coming soon: Representing climate change through graphic design and video games.

See also: What happens when climate science meets the art gallery? Take a tour of POLARSEEDS with climatologist Marco Tedesco.

Saving Helium: Something Lawmakers Actually Agree On

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 3:07 PM PST
Congress: Keeping balloon Hello Kitty alive since 2013.

The world is facing a helium crisis. Helium is a finite and rapidly diminishing resource, one we could run out of in the next 25 years. And here we've been blowing up giant Snoopy balloons and making ourselves sound like pre-pubescent boys for all these years.

The shortage is causing helium prices to, well, balloon. And apparently it's all Congress' fault:

Scientists have warned that the world's most commonly used inert gas is being depleted at an astonishing rate because of a law passed in the United States in 1996 which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle.
The law stipulates that the US National Helium Reserve, which is kept in a disused underground gas field near Amarillo, Texas – by far the biggest store of helium in the world – must all be sold off by 2015, irrespective of the market price.

But now the House of Representatives—in a rare bipartisan effort—is trying to change that. On Wednesday, Democratic Reps. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Rush Holt (N.J.) and Republican Reps. Doc Hastings (Wash.) and Bill Flores (Texas) announced that they are working together on the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act. The bill would change how the Helium Reserve, which provides half of all helium used in the United States and a third of the helium used all over the world, works and extend its life beyond 2015. It would auction off most of the helium in the reserve at market value (which will be determined by the Secretary of Interior), instead of selling it at cut rates. It will also require that we keep the last 3 billion cubic feet of helium in the reserve for use for research purposes.

Helium isn't just necessary for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, as the lawmakers point out. It's also used in computer chips, MRI scans, fiberoptic cables, and NASA's rockets.