The Polar Bear Affair. Part 1001.

by | Dec 8, 2011

The BBC’s Frozen Planet is continuing to fuel controversy. First, as discussed previously on this blog, the BBC’s decision to sell the seventh episode of the series — David Attenborough’s personal view of climate change and the crysophere — as an option led to screams and shouts from environmentalists. Environmentalists turned natural history into a morality tale.

A new brouhaha has broken out. A short opinion piece in the Radio Times — the BBC’s ‘what’s on TV’ guide — by Nigel Lawson has got polar Open University Polar Oceanographer Dr Mark Brandon all hot and sticky. Said Lawson,

Sir David Attenborough is one of this country’s finest journalists, and a great expert on animal life. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to global warming he seems to prefer sensation to objectivity.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have pointed out that, while satellite observations do indeed confirm that the extent of arctic sea ice has been declining over the past 30 years, the same satellite observations show that, overall, Antarctic sea ice has been expanding over the same period.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have pointed out that the polar bear population has not been falling, but rising.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have mentioned that recent research findings show that the increased evaporation from the Arctic ocean, as a result of warming, will cause there to be more cloud cover, thus counteracting the adverse effect he is so concerned about.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have noted that, while there was indeed a modest increase in mean global temperature (of about half a degree Centigrade) during the last quarter of the 20th century, so far this century both the UK Met Office and the World Meteorological Office confirm that there has been no further global warming at all.

What will happen in the future is inevitably unclear. But two things are clear. First, that Sir David’s alarmism is sheer speculation. Second, that if there is a resumption of warming, the only rational course is to adapt to it, rather than to try (happily a lost cause) to persuade the world to impoverish itself by moving from relatively cheap carbon-based energy to much more expensive non-carbon energy.

The Guardian’s resident eco-gossip columnist, Leo Hickman is reporting that Brandon penned an irate response to Lawson’s article, calling it ‘”patronising”, wrong and the “usual tired obfuscation and generalisation”‘. A more sober rebuttal appears on the Open University’s website. The following passage about polar bears caught my eye.

Is it true that polar bear populations are rising, and not falling as reported?

Many bear populations are dropping, as we say. Longer summers with no ice are probably the main reason why many polar bear populations are dropping. So what is happening to the bears? Different things in different parts of the Arctic, but here is what the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission say about it:

In 2009, of the 19 recognised subpopulations of polar bears, 8 are in decline, 1 is increasing, 3 are stable and 7 don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions. Figure 1 below compares the data for 2005 and 2009.

It is clear that the area of red (bear population trend decreasing) has significantly increased from 2005 to 2009 and the area of green (bear population trend increasing).

Pie charts struck me as a very peculiar way of representing population decline. It says less than nothing about population. For instance, the graph could be true, yet the total number of polar bears have increased in just the one region under study. Indeed, a million billion trillion zillion new polar bears could have landed in the one area from nowhere, and the graph would look exactly the same. Brandon seems to have taken his stats from the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, and in particular this page which shows the different regions of their studies, and this table, showing the available data.

The 19 polar bear populations are divided as follows, according to the IUCN.

But if we rule out those 7 which ‘don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions’, we begin to see a problem.

There is insufficient data to say anything about the entire Eastern side of the polar region. Now let’s add the regions where populations are understood to be stable or increasing.

There are now 7 regions, of the 19, which are our focus. Working our way down the image, however, we find at Chukchi Sea that,

Abundance estimates are not available. The trend is believed to be declining and the status relative to historical levels is believed to be reduced based on legal/illegal harvest levels that were thought to be unsustainable. Sea ice loss is one of the highest levels in the Arctic. Combined impacts of high levels of legal/illegal harvest with rapid sea ice loss suggest that the risk for depletion is likely high.

In other words, the population of polar bears in this region have not been the subject of a population study.

Moving on to the Southern Beaufort Sea (SB), we discover the comment that ‘Estimated risk of future decline is based on vital rates estimated from the 2001-2006 data used in matrix-based demographic models that incorporate sea ice forecasts’. Models, not population studies are what see peril for polar bears. And indeed, going deeper into the analysis, it turns out that that,

The size of the SB subpopulation was first estimated to be approximately 1,800 animals in 1986. […] Through the 1980s and early 1990s, observations suggested that the SB subpopulation was increasing. Amstrup et al. (2001) found that the SB subpopulation may have reached as many as 2,500 polar bears in the late 1990s. However, that estimate was not considered reliable due to methodological difficulties, and management decisions continued to be based on a population size of 1,800. Results from an intensive mark-recapture study conducted from 2001-2006 in both the USA and Canada indicated that the SB subpopulation included 1,526 (95% CI = 1,211 – 1,841) polar bears in 2006 (Regehr et al. 2006). This suggests that the size of the SB subpopulation declined between the late 1990s and 2006, although low precision in the previous estimate of 1,800 precluded a statistical determination. […] Subsequent analyses of the 2001-2006 data using multistate and demographic models indicated that the survival and breeding of polar bears during this period were affected by sea ice conditions, and that population growth rate was strongly negative in years with long ice-free seasons[ …] Thus, the SB subpopulation is currently considered to be declining due to sea ice loss.

Again, we see that it is models which predict population decline, not actual population studies. On to Lancaster Sound (LS), the comments for which are that

A population size of 2,500 bears was estimated in 1998 using mark-recapture methods. Population is through {sic} to be declining, because of highly selective harvest of male polar bears. […] Demographic data are 11 years old. Population has highly selective harvest for males; however it is likely that selective hunting will decline with less sport hunting.

There’s an awful lot of estimating going on, about estimates of population done 14 years ago. Is this safe? Over to the Western Hudson Bay (WH).

The distribution, abundance, and population boundaries of the Western Hudson Bay (WH) subpopulation have been the subject of research programs since the late 1960s (Stirling et al. 1977, 1999, Derocher et al. 1993, 1997, Derocher and Stirling 1995, Taylor and Lee 1995, Lunn et al. 1997, Regehr et al. 2007). […] Between 1987 and 2004, WH declined from 1194 (95% CI = 1020, 1368) in 1987 to 935 (95% CI = 794, 1076) in 2004, a reduction of about 22% (Regehr et al. 2007).

At last, we seem to have a number of studies to work from — a 22% reduction, even though the confidence intervals are quite wide, and do not exclude the possibility of there having been no population reduction at all. Over to Kane Basin (KB), which is,

A small subpopulation of approximately 150 polar bears, estimated in 1997. Harvest is thought to be unsustainable, and the population declining.

Thought to be… Maybe even good reason for thinking it… But it’s still just a thought. Anecdote, not data. On to Baffin Bay,

The current (2004) abundance estimate is less than 1,600 bears based on simulations using vital rates from the capture study (Taylor et al. 2005) and up-to-date pooled Canadian and Greenland harvest records.


The initial subpopulation estimate of 900 bears for [Davis Strait] (Stirling et al. 1980, Stirling and Killian 1980) was based on a subjective correction from the original mark-recapture calculation of 726 bears, which was felt to be too low because of possible bias in the sampling. In 1993, the estimate was again increased to 1,400 bears and to 1,650 in 2005. These increases were to account for the bias as a result of springtime sampling, the fact that the existing harvest appeared to be sustainable and not having negative effects on the age structure, and TEK which suggested that more bears were being seen over the last 20 years. The most recent inventory of this subpopulation was completed in 2007; the new subpopulation estimate is 2,142 (95% log-normal CI, 1811 – 2534). Using new recruitment and natural survival estimates (Tables 3, 4), the 10-year mean un-harvested geometric population growth rate is 0.98 ± 0.001 (Peacock 2009; see Research in Canada, this volume). DS is currently declining based on survival rates calculated from data collected up to the conclusion of the mark-recapture study in 2007. Ecological covariates associated with survival suggest that the decline may be as a combined result of short-term and local density dependence, stabilization of harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) numbers and declining ice conditions.

So in fact the population of the Davis Strait increased over the last 30 years, in spite of global warming, from 726 to 2,142. But now it is supposed that they are in decline, in spite of there being no actual population study.

I’m not impressed. I believed that claims about polar bear population declines were based on polar bear population studies. But in two of these seven populations (Davis Strait and Southern Beaufort Sea) there was good evidence from actual population studies that numbers were increasing, which was overturned in the final analysis by ‘estimates’ of decline. Of the remaining 5, one region seems to have a robust claim to have shown a decline in population, but the rest are claims made on ‘estimates’ and simulations. Time to update the map.

Black shows the areas where there is insufficient data. Green shows regions where there is evidence of increase or stability. Red shows decrease. And yellow shows regions whose polar bear population numbers have been guessed. Grey is N/A.

Moreover, the main emphasis made by the PBSG is not the effect of global warming on polar bears, but humans shooting them. They discuss ‘sustainable’ levels of harvesting these creatures, which are ultimately dangerous pests as far as humans are concerned.

Brandon’s silly population pie charts seem to me to epitomise the way ambiguous data is concealed, and given a façade of scientific certainty. More to the point, it was wielded in a public and political debate about global warming policy. And this is the interesting thing about the cryosphere. Since it is so hostile, data series longer than 30 years are hard to come by. It is no surprise then, that this is where we find arguments about catastrophic climate change bury themselves — in uncertainty and ambiguity. The same is true of polar bear populations as it is of sea ice extent and air, sea and surface temperature. Where there are gaps in the knowledge, prejudices, assumptions and speculation fill the void. We see, as a matter of routine, claims that there are only N years left before the summer sea ice will be completely gone from the Arctic, and repeated claims that ‘the Northwest Passage has opened up for the first time in recorded history’. The Arctic and Antarctic are where fears about ‘runaway global warming’ and speculation about positive feedback systems are grounded, precisely because these regions are so poorly understood. And this lack of understanding is the reason idiot self-publicists go on futile missions to swim to the North Pole, or to trek across it ‘while we still can’ with moron scientists in tow, doing far more PR than research. In this respect, the cryosphere is is to climate change alarmism what quantum mechanics is to people preoccupied with parapsychology: it offers a possible mechanism to explain telepathy, ghosts, and even homoeopathy.


  1. Sean McHugh

    A few days ago, I replied to the matter of polar-bear endangerment, in the blog, “Climate Progress, Edited by Joe Romm” I replied to a comment made by Chris Ho-Stuart. This was the page:

    It is titled: “Heartbreaking Photo of Polar Bear and Icebreaking Expedition Ship”. Quoting the poster, I replied:

    Chris said:

    “Long term, I certainly agree that the prognosis for that polar bear is grim, given how well she is adapted to an environment now in rapid decline.”

    Hi Chris,

    It’s been a while. I recently read a newspaper report that provided a scientific warning of rapid melting of Arctic glaciers. The main concern was the inundation that resultant rising seas would cause:

    “All over the world, even in the tropics, the temperature is rising, he says, adding that the Arctic glaciers are melting so fast that if something does not happen to retard the rate vast areas of inhabited coasts and low-lying country tn various sections of the world may become flooded.”

    The newspaper report isn’t from the IPCC. It was written in nineteen forty-seven.

    I received the message, “You comment is awaiting moderation”. That remained there till the next day when it and my comment disappeared. What it really meant, was that my comment was awaiting censorship. Other comments were posted in the meantime. I tried over the next couple of days and on these occasions there was no returned message. My comment would just instantly vanish. I believe that this sort of thing is not unusual with warmist blogs.

  2. intrepid_wanders

    I forget which warmist site it was, but I did a very similar analysis :)

    One piece of the puzzle you might like is that ALL the polar bear decline is from Steven C. Amstrup’s “simulations”, “baysian networks” and IPCC GCMs.

    A report/paper Armstrong et al. (Armstrong), J. S., K. C. Green, W. Soon (Willie). 2008 kind of shreds their work:

    Then Amstrup fires back the most pathetic rebuttal:
    …appealing to the “authority” of IPCC…

    PBSG specializes in propaganda, not science.

  3. Ben Pile

    Intrepid. I didn’t want to get too deeply into the analysis of polar bear population studies. The issue for me was that a cryosphere scientist was taking meaningless statistics at face value, though was taking a stand in a public disagreement superficially about a BBC programme, but in reality a broader debate about policy.

    It took just a few quick moments to look into the claims Brandon was making, and to discover that there was insufficient data to make statements about polar bear populations across the largest part of the Arctic, that there was barely enough to make even estimates of the vast majority of the remainder, and that flimsy estimations had been given a highly subjective treatment in the final analysis, and that the main cause of population decline was not global warming at all, but people shooting bears. So why wasn’t somebody, whose day job is understanding the cryosphere, capable of being more circumspect about the ‘evidence’ he was presenting?

  4. Yves Genest

    The devil is in the details and I commend your analysis which once again debunks allegations made out of thin air and even thinner scientific foundations.

    When it comes to undergoing a census for wild species, accurate figures are naturally very hard to produce. After all polar bears do not have mailing addresses. Therefore, at the end of the day, it means, in the case of polar bears at least, that some poor bugger has to explore extensively one of the most desolate (and coldest despite global warming) area of the planet to make some sort of head count. It is, no doubt, more gratifying to pontificate about endangered species in Durban, between a martini and a visit to the beach, I guess. This is what explains, more than anything else, the dearth of accurate data for most areas mentioned in your blog.

    However, this kind of debate is a form of misdirection (a favorite tactic of Warmists). Normally zoologists, given the problems mentioned above, are quite content with rough estimates. And they have become pretty good at it.

    What do these figures tell us about the polar bear population?

    In the 70s, the polar bear population hovered around 5,000. (

    The most recent estimates (2010) say there are 20-25,000 polar bears worldwide based on a source that certainly has no vested interest in overestimating them: the WWF, no less.

    A five-fold increase. Not bad for an endangered species.

  5. Lewis Deane


    ‘It took just a few quick moments to look into the claims’! Beautifully thought out, as usual!

  6. Lewis Deane

    I often think that rational argument and a thinking, well presented, ‘glows’ in the dark and, as it were, attracts the fireflies of people of bona voluntas. I’m sure it’s true, I’m determined that it’s true, but, sometimes, my, and other peoples, ‘determination’ fails. People I’m interested in (in this ‘narrow’ sense, I’m not interested in myself). It would be consoling, if it were true. No one is the ‘beeze knees’, when it comes to anything, but when I read what Nigel Lawson wrote, someone, who for us, in our young, old days, was a bete noir, write so passionately and correctly about this strange madness we are in and, I see the vitriol with it’s treated, I despair. We are in an upside down world. Are we on the loosing slide of history? Is what I considered ‘rationality’ obsolete, like Christianity or necromancy? But, then, I read your post or, perhaps, McIntyre’s (and others, more eclectic than is safe in acknowledging – like, for instance, the Asian Times Online, often wrong, often irritatingly wrong, but thoughtful), and, like the affect of a good, strong poem, I am returned to my ‘faith’. Thanks.

  7. Lewis Deane

    Just as a note, and, in case I’m misunderstood, poetry is rigorous, rational thought given its proper form. Anything else is just garbage and doggerel.

  8. Lewis Deane

    This is what I mean by ‘bad’ poetry or ‘good’ reporting. I mean Dr Pangloss with his dark, Dr Pangloss glasses, or am I naive, a real Candide?:

    To quote:

    UN climate talks heading to a deal

    Nations at the UN climate talks appear to be edging their way to agreeing that a process towards a new carbon-cutting deal should start in the New Year.

    The absurd conditionality of that sentence is not made up!

    O those New Year Resolutions – (how one can’t help recalling old ‘may days’ and ‘five year plans’! These seem to be the same people!) how much this absurd jamboree loves them!?

  9. Lewis Deane


    ‘The move marks a success for the ad-ho alliance formed between the EU and scores of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries.’

    I kid you not. This is Pravda at it’s best! And you wonder, Keith, about British ‘journalism’? Who needs the tabloids?!

    By the way, the ‘alliance’ that the BBC is speaking of, certainly ‘ad-hoc’, last minute and meaningless, would that be the alliance between the recently defeated and the less recently defeated? Akin, in soccer, let us say, to an alliance between England and Russia? And equally as absurd?

    Sorry, this really is to wonderful to pass by:

    Not ‘would be a success’ but ‘marks’ a success, mark you! Ah, history!

  10. Count Arthur Strong

    Soon there won’t be any trees left in the Arctic. And then where will the polar bears nest, eh?

  11. Robert of Ottawa

    Interestingly, you are neither a crimatologist nort an Ursologist, yet, by reason of the application of reason, you can make insightful comments on errors in the “settled science”. This is always the attack upon climate non-conformists – that you we are not competent to make those so fine judgements that Crimatologists [TM] can do.

  12. james cox

    The ice is melting. The only thing that lives there that is interesting is a polar bear.
    Watching polar bears floating around on blockes of ice is quite bleak. Desperate almost.

  13. james cox

    All I can think of is climate change versus polar bears. Imagine if the equation was that simple. Let say; if polar bears survive then we have avoided or solved climate change? The bears die and we are all in the shit… ?

  14. james cox

    Thinking back on having watched the programs. I don’t think they were polemical . I think they were recording changes that are undoubtedly happening. The “plight” of the polar bear is seperate to arguements about climate change. It is what it is. Its there to see.
    Even if its tokenistic we shouldn’t belittle suffering, no matter what.

  15. james cox

    We should create a polar bear / carbon index. Its the answer. How could argue against it..

  16. james cox

    Ice / bears / people = bad documentary…

  17. james cox

    This goes back to a simple argument about whether you value individuals or you value species. In an abstract sense.
    One the one hand you have association and empathy, on the other you have ideals . An idealistic view of nature – in terms of species – is not sustainable.

  18. StuartR

    Brilliant and damning analysis. I would say you have caught them out deliberately distorting the method of presentation of the data. I would prefer this had been put as an argument to David Attenborough than anything Lawson says I can’t imagine Attenborough – as a professional science presenter – being happy with this pie chart method. I had a feeling of deja vu when I read the population rebuttal. This seems to be a stock answer to the claims of total population increase. So I had a dig around and sure enough found an old 2007 rebuttal to Bjorn Lomborg in the Guardian:

    Dr Andrew Derocher, chairman of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, said Lomborg’s book was based on outdated statistics because the group had published an updated report in 2006, which showed that of 19 populations five were declining, five were stable and two were increasing; and for the remaining six there was not enough data to judge.

    IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group is the same group that are the source of this latest definition of polar bear knowledge. It is curious to note that while the number of polar bear populations is the same i.e. 19, the distribution has changed slightly with “not enough data” now increased from 6 to 7. It looks like at this rate the level of ignorance will move in a suitably satisfactory direction where soon any necessary alarmist statement can be made about polar bears.

  19. edward bear

    An interesting story, thank you. I had not realised that polar bear numbers was another field where so many of the numbers came from computer models. You couldn’t make it up. But clearly they did.

    Don’t forget the story of Dr Mitchell Taylor, polar bear expert who was banned from attending a meeting of the PBSG for daring to suggest that polar bears might not be too threatened by global warming and might actually be increasing. Clearly this is another group where the scientists have been taken over by the political activists.

  20. James Cox

    aren’t polar bear skeletons found much further south than where they live “right now”. Again, why can we can only look at the world as it is. We can’t take a “picture” or “snapshot” of the world and then try and preserve or ever recreate it. If we tried this it would not even be nostalgic as we creating the myth right now, it’s already melancholy.

  21. Jane Coles

    IUCN/PBSG needs the PB population to decrease in perpetuity (like a barber pole) — if population rises, or if PBs become extinct, then their funding ends. How could such an organization deal with data suggesting an (overall) increase in PB population? Here’s a strategy: look closely at all the regions where the PB numbers seem to be up. Then devise an “insufficient data” criterion that will eliminate most of these regions from further consideration. Presto!

  22. Jamspid

    Staying Off topic as usual
    Looking at the fuel bills story
    i read that Chris Hitchens has finally passed away
    Im really sad and its a great loss
    Im pleased that Chris and Peter made up their differances and he died knowing that his family was all united at the end

    Chris Hitchens was really at heart one us he was a humanist always forward looking optomistic loved the triump of the human spirit
    (not a miserbalist control freaking climate alarmist)
    But mainly he loved all things Ameican (ecept the Clintons)
    He was this famous scruffy agnostic rather right centred carrassmatic interlectual a great writer and thinker
    (unlike his his great sibling interlectual rival his brother Peter without the scruffy or the agnostic)
    Peter and Chris were exactly like that other great brotherly partnership Niles and Frazer
    Underneath all that interlectual pomposity there was some mad vibe going on between them
    Imagine them smashing each other with sherry glasses over a discussion about Europe or something

    look on Youtube where both Chrs and Peter appear on Question Time
    Both brothers either end of the panel Dimbleby in the middle and silly Shirley Williasms trying to chip in
    Chris was either pissed or stoned or both and Peter just starring daggers at him
    Then at the very end with final always lighthearted trival question of the evening about bthe death of Bernard Manning they both cracked a slight knowing smile
    An absolute TV classic

    Shortly after that show is when they finally made up
    Then Chris got his cancer Dioagnosis

    Chrsi and Peter then appeared on various high brow panels discussing Iraq Fancail meltdown Europe
    Globalisation Climate change etc etc
    But with Chris and his on going cancer treatment the main topic was of course religon and atheism

    Now Sadly but pehaps thankfully Chris has passed on

    We need to thank Chris for every thing he has done to help the “humaan condition” and he can now finally rest in peace

  23. Mark

    I thought Count Arthur Strong’s comment “Soon there won’t be any trees left in the Arctic. And then where will the polar bears nest, eh?” was laugh-out-loud.

    Matt Ridley’s written on ‘nesting’ polar bears too Seems that the main cause of decline, where there is a decline, is shooting, not absence of ice. He also makes the point that they’ve coped with, and survived, warmer periods in their species history.

    Following on from this thought. I don’t know how long polar bears have been around. The average ‘life expectancy’ of a species is around a million years. If polar bears have been around for, say, half a million years this means that they’ve survived several ice ages, including all the sudden warming periods at the beginning of each interglacial, many of which will have been warmer than now. Unlike the fervent, even fevered, imagination of the AGW believers, species such as the polar bear just aren’t that delicate. The fittest have survived, and they’ll survive the current mild warming. Their motto, if they had one, would be “Keep calm and carry on”. And it should be ours, too.

  24. concerned biologist

    I’m a biologist and I have a background in mass media and public relations. There is a problem with what is going on, and most scientists agree. By most I mean at very least 8 out of 10 of them. There is also a lot of information in this article I personally would question. I think corporations have input on these things to keep the public views balanced on opposing sides to prevent questioning/company losses, but what do I know? I’m not here to argue with anyone, and I will probably never see this article again. I just wish that the public would be fully informed about the impacts of the industrial revolution so we can start make changes. What would be even better is if people would do there own research for sound information. At very least consider BBC or national geographic before assuming you know exactly what’s going on. Then again, I’m just a crazy scientist who knows nothing.

  25. Ian P

    I blame the penguin shortage up there. The carbon taxes on flying make it so much harder for them to go now.

  26. Vinny Burgoo

    Here’s an update of your updated map. Same colour key.

    Baffin Bay has gone dark green because Traditional Ecological Knowledge says that the local bear population is increasing (possibly because of migration from Lancaster Sound).

    Note that hunting has a major impact in all areas except West Hudson Bay (the sole red sector).

  27. Ben Pile

    Vinny, do you have a link for that?

  28. Bruce

    How many polar bears are hunted annually?

    Subsistence hunting accounts for a low number of polar bear casualties. In Canada Trophy hunting accounts for 700 polar bear deaths a year. This number may increase since the province of Nunavut routinely increases the kill quota. In Greenland hunters currently kill between 200 and 250 polar bears per year.

  29. Vinny Burgoo

    I used the IUCD pages you linked to above:

    Baffin Bay

    Population estimate for 2004 is simulated from vital rates measured in 1997. 100% of PVA runs resulted in population decline after 10 years. TEK suggests population is increasing. Both TEK and professionals have suggested immigration from LS. Quotas have decreased in Greenland (2006) and Increased in Nunavut (2005), decrease to start (2010).

  30. Vinny Burgoo

    IUCN, not IUCD.

  31. european university accredited

    Generally I don’t read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up
    very compelled me to take a look at and do it!
    Your writing style has been amazed me. Thanks, quite great article.



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