A new study by U.S. Geological Survey scientists warns that if nothing is done to cut carbon dioxide emissions, polar bear populations could be “greatly decreased” by mid-century as Arctic sea ice declines.
“Adverse consequences of loss of sea ice habitat became more pronounced as the summer ice-free period lengthened beyond four months,” reads the new USGS study, “which could occur in most of the Arctic basin after mid-century if [greenhouse gas] emissions are not promptly reduced.”
“Long-term conservation of polar bears would be best supported by holding global mean temperature to ≤ 2°C above preindustrial levels,” reads the study. “Until further sea ice loss is stopped, management of other stressors may serve to slow the transition of populations to progressively worsened outcomes, and improve the prospects for their long-term persistence.”
The study, ironically, comes on the heels of a contentious International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report that found polar bear populations range from 22,000-31,000 — more than previously reported. The IUCN also found a “large amount of uncertainty in statistical projections of Polar Bear abundance and the sensitivity of projections to plausible alternative assumptions.“
In fact, there are many more polar bears today than there were 40 years ago, thanks largely to hunting and trade restrictions. Polar bears also grew in number while Arctic sea ice coverage shrank.
“Really, no surprises here – just more of the same overwrought fear-mongering about polar bears that we’ve been hearing from USGS since 2007,” veteran zoologist Susan Crockford wrote on her blog.
Crockford, a polar bear expert, has been critical of claims of massive polar bear die-offs because of global warming. She’s argued that thick spring sea ice, not waning summer ice, is more of a threat to bears.
“Some folks may be even more convinced than ever by this new PR strategy that the polar bears are all going to die unless we change our wicked ways and stop using fossil fuels,” she wrote, “but chances are that many more will detect the desperation in their escalated pitch and continue to refuse to buy what they are so frantically trying to sell.”
Federal wildlife officials decided earlier this year they would not pursue a total ban on the polar bear fur trade. On top of that, officials also decided not to list polar bears on a comprehensive list of species immediately threatened with extinction.
Polar bears will remain “Appendix II” species, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials. These are species that may be threatened in the future, but are doing fine right now. Polar bears are only listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act over fears they could be harmed by global warming.
But the USGS study team, led by biologist Todd Atwood, claim humanity needs to stop using fossil fuels to cut atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, Atwood and another co-author also helped write the IUCN’s more upbeat study on polar bears.
“The scenarios predicted by our models are encouraging in that there are clear actions that humans can take to improve the chances that healthy polar bear populations persist in the future,” Atwood said in a statement. “The research can help management officials and political leaders make decisions based on the best available science.”
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