Reflections on polar bears and the oil industry for Earth day 2012

The image of the lone polar bear, ranging across ice floes and over frozen tundra, is an icon of the climate change discussion through no fault of its own.  Six years ago Drs. Charles Monnett and Jeffrey Gleason authored a paper, “Observations of mortality associated with extended open-water swimming by polar bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea” which appeared in Polar Biology regarding their observations in the Beaufort Sea in Alaska.  Agents of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, they were initially over the sea aerially tracking the annual bowhead whale migration when they noticed four polar bear carcasses.  As dead polar bears are rarely observed, seeing quite a few at once, even after a storm, alarmed them and they set about investigating.  Polar bear presence during whale migration periods has been tracked by their group since 1987 so they looked at the numbers of bears observed, the number in open water, and how far from shore they were observed when swimming.  Their basic concern was that as ice levels recede, bears may have to travel further to get from one iceberg to the next, and although they are strong swimmers, they may underestimate the distance, leading to fatigue, exhaustion, and subsequent drowning.

Al Gore publicized this small, peer-reviewed publication in An Inconvenient Truth and the polar bears became a cause to rally behind.  Much research has been done on their numbers, which were observed to be shrinking in many areas in the mid 2000’s, causing people to advocate for listing them as endangered or threatened.  They have been a popular sport hunting target in the past, and currently the populations are recovering from a large sport hunting ban which decimated the population for the last several decades and which is now beginning to recover.  Many fought back against listing the polar bears as threatened for a variety of reasons, most of which can be distilled down to money, either money for tourism for hunting the bears, or money to exploit the habitats the bears occupy for oil.

The Department of the Interior began an investigation for reasons that remain a bit unclear (because it’s an ongoing investigation, they don’t have to explain why they are looking into things) but they cast aspersions on the “scientific integrity” of Dr. Monnett in July 2011.  This was done in very vague terms (like “undisclosed”) and initially the press assumed it was due to the highly discussed 2006 paper about the dead polar bears.  And only after headlines like “Global Warming Industry Rocked by Polar Bear Fraud” (Fox News) and “Drowning Polar Bears And the Return Of Ursus Bogus” (Forbes) did the D.o.I. explain they weren’t investigating the paper so much as management of the program and other issues.  However, as they openly called into question Dr. Monnett’s integrity, this led to a professional suspension from his agency.

After the initially kerfuffle blew over, there has been little follow up in the press regarding his current status or that of the investigation.  However, a little browsing into what’s going on in the Beaufort Sea at the moment reveals that oil companies, most notably Shell, have been trying desperately to get access to drill for oil in that region.  “Shell wins federal OK for Beaufort Sea oil spill plan: Company still needs approval for specific wells before it can drill” read a March 2012 headline in the Anchorage Daily News.  Presumably the spill plan is in response to the BP Deepwater Horizon incident so that it seems like responsible planning, but as that event clearly illustrates, having a plan doesn’t mean you can sufficiently execute it to prevent a regional disaster.  So what future fate awaits the polar bears?  Does more negative exposure for scientists indicate we really are craven and depraved as the press sometimes paints us, or is it more likely to be a strategy to discredit good scientists who are up against big financial interests?  It’s certainly something I believe people ought to contemplate, both on Earth Day 2012 and every day.

photo by Tom Mangelsen

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