Polar bear, Arctic sea ice all-but doomed: Misleading Nature cover story misleads the media, public

Last week Nature published a study, “Greenhouse gas mitigation can reduce sea-ice loss and increase polar bear persistence” (subs. req’d).  The journal had a pretty sensational cover, with a polar bear and the compelling headline, “Staying Alive:  Cut greenhouse-gas emissions now we can still save the polar bear.”

If you missed Nature, you probably saw the headlines:

I really wish any of that were realistic, not so much because the polar bear is a critical linchpin species, but because the loss of Arctic ice in the summer may well trigger even more rapid warming (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss” and below).  But in fact a much more reasonable AFP headline would be “Arctic ice cap on verge of runaway melting:  study.”  The NSF release should read, “Polar bear extinction now likely.”

I understand that journalists typically don’t read studies closely, but Nature ought to know better.    Perhaps, as we will see, it is just a matter of climate scientists of being utterly divorced from the reality of our energy and political systems.   Still, in reading the study and its supplementary information, I am puzzled why Nature published the article as written and especially why it chose to sensationalize it on the cover.

Let’s set aside, for now, the fact that the study focuses on sea ice area, not volume.  This is key figure in the paper:

Figure 3: September sea-ice extent (50% concentration) recovers from a RILE [rapid ice-loss event] in a 2020 greenhouse gas commitment realization:

September sea-ice extent (50% concentration) recovers from a RILE in a 2020 greenhouse gas commitment realization.

In the 2020 commitment realization, which was integrated from the same initial state as the A1B reference realization, greenhouse gas concentrations followed the A1B scenario until 2020, and were fixed thereafter. RILEs occurred in both realizations during the decade of the 2020s. In contrast to the reference run (red line), the substantial sea-ice recovery in the 2020 commitment scenario (purple line) supports the concept that RILEs represent natural sea-ice variability superimposed on a secular warming-induced sea-ice decline, rather than tipping points. All lines represent 10-year running averages compiled from the annual data.

Hurray!  We’ve saved the Arctic and the polar bear!

All we need to do is get on that “2020 commitment scenario.”  That shouldn’t be any problem, should it?  How hard can it be to freeze GHG concentrations at 2020 levels?  It can’t be that hard, can it, because Nature‘s own news story on the article doesn’t tell its vast number of readers who are not expert in energy or GHG scenarios any more than this:

This paper provides reason to hope that the previous predictions of declines in polar bear populations can be avoided if concerted efforts are made to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions

The National Science Foundation release is a tad clearer:

The new Nature paper indicates that if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced substantially in the near future, rapid ice losses would be followed by substantial retention of the remaining ice through this century–and partial recovery of the ice that disappeared during the rapid ice loss.

In fact, if you wanted to stabilize concentrations the 2020 levels, you would in fact have to cut GHG emissions about 60% to 70% almost immediately and have further cuts over time (as I discuss here and RealClimate discusses here).

Nothing close to that is gonna happen — in case that wasn’t obvious to pretty much everybody on the planet other than the authors of this study, the peer reviewers, and the editors at Nature.

It is well known that the difference between stabilizing concentrations and stabilizing emissions is probably the the biggest source of climate confusion among even people who are pretty knowledgeable (as I discuss here based on the work of John Sterman, Director of the MIT System Dynamics Group at the Sloan School of Management, here).

It is simply inexcusable that Nature and the authors don’t explain this fact in very clear language.

The A1B scenario, for the record, is close to the one that we’re on through 2050, so the figure above makes clear that, on our current emissions path, sea ice is likely to plummet in the near future.

The study has a number of other limitations.  The word “volume” or “thickness” never appears in it — even though sea ice has three dimensions and many cryoscientists believe olume is a more important indicator (see “Arctic Death Spiral 2010“).  The study never mentioned the black carbon, although that is considered to be a major contributor to sea ice loss.  The study concludes:

Our general circulation model outcomes did not reveal thresholds leading to irreversible loss of ice; instead, a linear relationship between global mean surface air temperature and sea-ice habitat substantiated the hypothesis that sea-ice thermodynamics can overcome albedo feedbacks proposed to cause sea-ice tipping points.

… the hypothesis that the climate system contains tipping elements means that habitats supporting cold-dependent species could disappear abruptly and irreversibly when a particular global mean surface air temperature (GMAT) is exceeded. It has been proposed that existing greenhouse gas emissions already have committed the earth to temperatures that will rise above the tipping point for loss of perennial Arctic sea ice.

Huh.  That figure above looks awfully like a tipping point to me, once you get realistic about near-term emissions reductions.  The tipping point notion is NOT that the ice vanishes abruptly when a certain temperature is exceeded, unless you are trying to define tipping point so narrowly that it has no utility.  The tipping point is that the ice can’t plausibly be stopped from vanishing once a certain concentration level is hit because of the tremendous lags in the climate system.

I mean, if you want to get technical here, there could just about never be a tipping point because humanity could, theoretically, go to zero emissions — and then negative emissions (i.e. sequestration) over a very short period of time.  But again, it is misleading to the public to leave the impression that, say, there is any plausible chance we would stabilize concentrations at 2020 levels.

I also think it strange that an article focusing on rapid ice loss events never cites “Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss.” The lead author is David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), who I interviewed for my book and recently interviewed again via e-mail about his recent work. The study’s ominous conclusion:

We find that simulated western Arctic land warming trends during rapid sea ice loss are 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate-change trends. The accelerated warming signal penetrates up to 1500 km inland”¦.

In other words, if we get rapid sea ice loss in the near future (as the Nature study projects), the recent trend in sea ice loss may triple Arctic warming, causing large emissions in carbon dioxide and methane from the tundra this century.  That would seem to support the tipping point theory.

The study has an NCAR coauthor.  It seems to me if the Nature authors don’t believe the earlier NCAR study is accurate, they need to explain why, not ignore it.

The study asserts:

The perception that nothing can be done to avoid catastrophic losses and ultimate disappearance of polar bears was exemplified in 2007 when the general media proclaimed polar bears were irreversibly doomed.

Well, it cites precisely one article for the final claim:   “Kizzia, T. Alaska polar bears called doomed. Anchorage Daily News A1 (September 8 2007).”  And the weird thing about citing and criticizing that article is that it quotes heavily from a study by the lead author of the current study, Steven C. Amstrup, of the USGS:

Shrinking sea ice will leave only a remnant surviving population of the world’s polar bears in the islands of the Canadian Arctic by mid-century, according to a breathtaking new study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, including those along the coasts of Alaska and Russia, will have disappeared.

The loss of summer sea-ice habitat will be so profound for bear populations that regional efforts to protect them, such as restricting subsistence hunting or Arctic oil and gas development, will not be able to prevent their disappearance, the government scientists said.

Moreover, the bears’ doom is irreversible, the study said. Even a dramatic effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would not be enough to halt the near-term warming trend and save the coastal bears. The species might manage to survive in its remnant outposts if long-term warming trends are reversed, scientists said.

Things could be turned around so that they don’t disappear completely,” said Steve Amstrup, the biological study team leader for the USGS. On the other hand, Amstrup said, climate-warming models chosen for the study tended to be conservative, so the bears might disappear faster than predicted.

“As the sea ice goes, so goes the polar bear,” Amstrup said….

Amstrup rebutted the idea that polar bears could survive by adapting to land-based hunting. He said studies have shown the bears to be very inefficient hunters of land animals, which in any case do not provide the kind of rich nutrition polar bears seek.

So the new study’s findings, read realistically, aren’t much different than that of the 2007 study, which I discussed here:  “Will polar bears go extinct by 2030? “” Part I.”  Indeed, the new study makes perfectly clear that if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, most of the polar bear population will be wiped out by midcentury.

The only ‘good news’ in this study “Greenhouse gas mitigation that keeps GMAT rise below 1.25″‰°C combined with traditional wildlife management could, it seems, maintain polar bear numbers at sustainable although lower-than-present levels throughout the century.”  Note that GMAT is measured from 1980-1999 levels.  So you’re talking about keeping total warming from preindustrial levels at below about 1.8°C, which requires keeping concentrations at or, more likely, below 450 ppm.  That means we need to peak around 2015 to 2020 at the latest, then drop at least 60% by 2050 to at most 15 billion tons (4 billion tons of carbon), and then go to near zero net carbon emissions by 2100 (see “How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“).

I say:

  1. Let’s do it
  2. Don’t hold your breath, Ursus maritimus.

As is pretty clear from this discussion, the Nature analysis is over-idealized.  Because they focus their model on sea ice area and not volume, I’m more inclined to buy Admiral Titley’s data-driven projection based on three dimensions than the study’s model based on two (see “Arctic Death Spiral 2010“).

Rear Admiral David Titley, the U.S. Navy’s chief oceanographer and director of its climate change task force, “predicts an ice-free Arctic in late summer by 2020.”  By mid-century, he thinks we could be seeing 2 to 3 months of ice free conditions.

The survival of polar bears as a species is difficult to envisage under conditions of zero summer sea-ice cover,” concludes the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, by leading scientists from the eight Arctic nations, including the United States. Another 2004 study, by Canadian scientists, agreed:

[G]iven the rapid pace of ecological change in the Arctic, the long generation time, and the highly specialised nature of polar bears, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive as a species if the sea ice disappears completely.

I think the Nature cover should have looked more like this:



49 Responses to Polar bear, Arctic sea ice all-but doomed: Misleading Nature cover story misleads the media, public

  1. j says:

    great post. keep it up. thank you.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice analysis, Joe.

    Mainstream scientific publications seem to become timid over time. We’ve also seen poor lead articles from Scientific American and New Scientist. They’ve seen so many Americans drift away from confronting scientific facts that it’s almost as if they’re trying to woo them back with marketing.

    I can understand Nature’s overly optimistic projections, since it’s the holiday season, and people don’t have a high tolerance for gloom. The problem is that the Nature article’s projections for mitigation are rosy and unrealistic in light of the data.

    One of these mainstream scientific magazines is going to have to blow the bugle and lay out what is actually likely to be in store, especially with regard to methane feedbacks from permafrost melting. Science did it with the Shakhova article, but they shouldn’t be left out on a limb. It’s not a pretty picture, but facing danger and related moral issues squarely is a sign of maturity. We showed it in the Civil War and in World War II. The danger this time is far greater, and the few remaining beacons such as Nature and Scientific American need to lay out the facts. We won’t like it, but we can take it.

  3. BB says:

    Let’s say the entire population of Polar Bears ended up evolving into the hybridized ‘Pizzly’ (or some other form) of mixed-bear.
    Theoretically this would result in the ‘Polar Bear’ purebred no longer existing, but what would this mean with certainty for the ecosystem itself?

    Not that forcing an animal to evolve or lose it’s previous identity through hybridization is a good thing, but what can we say with guaranteed surety that ‘dirty polar bears’ aren’t going to do that ‘polar bears’ did that will eventually rip the biome apart? I had thought their habitat was linked with seals (but in reverse order), but I suppose the arctic species of seals can themselves do the same sort of hybridization with the millions of other seals that exist in various populations.

    [JR: Takes too long to evolve — see Debunking Bjørn Lomborg — Part I, The Great Polar Bear Irony. Wikipedia notes: “According to both fossil and DNA evidence, the polar bear diverged from the brown bear roughly 200 thousand years ago; fossils show that between 10 and 20 thousand years ago the polar bear’s molar teeth changed significantly from those of the brown bear.”]

  4. Patrick says:

    So the short version is that it is as near to certain as you could ask for, that the artic will be largely ice free for a number of months every summer within the next twenty years.

    Further given this likelyhood the Polar bear will be, with a high degree of certainty, extinct.

    The question which might have an impact on people is that of excess mortality of humans in the brave new world we are creating for ourselves. When animals become extinct we are sad. When our children become extinct we will not be so apathetic.

  5. Lou Grinzo says:

    First and foremost: Thanks, Joe, for this post. I’ve been waiting for someone to connect the dots on what this paper really implies.

    Second: I think this is a near perfect example of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). If you make a wildly optimistic assumption about emissions, the resulting CC isn’t as bad as if we’re not as diligent.

  6. Ian says:

    Hey Joe,

    I want to thank you for another great analysis and debunking. Its not news to me that the polar bears will go extinct, but I cried reading this, as I do almost any time I read about animals being threatened by climate change. Even though it is extremely sad news, thank you for keeping us all informed.

    Joe, I do not mean this in any sort of negatively critical way, but I’ve noticed that the tone of your posts has shifted to acceptance of some of the worst outcomes of AGW. Previously, I’ve noticed that you would merely point out the consequences of inaction but it seems now you are accepting that inaction is inevitable.

    Again, I am not at all criticizing you and perhaps I am wrong regarding my assumptions and I apologize if I am wrong about you.

    But even if I am wrong, could I ask you a favor?

    Joe, could you please give us (your readers) an insight into your honest feelings about the state of planet earth and the future of human beings?

    I know you have done countless posts regarding the science of global warming *IF* we do nothing. But since it seems you accept that *WE WILL* do nothing, then what do you think will happen?

    One merely has to read the comments on CP to get a sense of how the readers feel. Many accept that inaction is inevitable and are preparing for the worst. How do you feel, Joe? What do you think about what is going to happen? What do you see in the next year? 5 years? 30?

    I am not asking for you to look into a crystal ball and tell us with absolute certainty what will happen. I am not asking you to rosy and hopeful. I am merely asking for an honest sense of your thoughts right now.

    I know it is extremely difficult to express one’s feelings so publicly. You don’t owe this explanation to any of us. But you know that many of us are ready to listen.

    Thanks Joe. Again, I apologize if this post is inappropriate in any way. Take care.


    [JR: It has long been the case that we probably wouldn’t avert catastrophe but could if we wanted to. The combination of the political reality of the last 12 months coupled with the scientific literature of the last 12 months plus the mind-boggling extreme weather cannot increase one’s optimism. I try to combine scientific realism and technological realism and political realism on this blog.

    I don’t know that we WILL do nothing. I try to make clear in every post that is not too late to avert the worst impacts for humans, but I don’t see how one saves the polar bear. It may be the case that an ice-free arctic is a tipping point, but that isn’t known for certain yet.

    I may try to spell out what think will happen in a post. Probably not until the new year though. However, I mostly spell this out in “Hell and High Water.”]

  7. EDpeak says:

    Good post, with great info as usual. I too felt the headlines were (in other news sources too) a bit on the rosy side and with a little extra digging realized it wasn’t great news. Joe as usual dug much deeper still and shows how far the rhetoric is from “oh, we can relax now” feel so many stories and headlines had. A concern,

    “predicts an ice-free Arctic in late summer by 2020.”

    It’s a tabloid newspaper, how much can we trust their accuracy? Maybe JR knows that this person made that prediction, from another source, and linking to was merely convenient..but if they are the only source, I’m not sure it

    [JR: You may be right. He told the CNO a month ice-free by end of 2030s. I’ll have to track him down.]

    Ian, your note is (imo) very polite and nice and thoughtful, but JR is not, I don’t think, saying “nothing” will be done. Just that nothing even close to the very (very!) sharp cuts that need to be done very (very!) soon will get done. Kyoto was what, 5% cut, and we can’t get uniform binding agreements with teeth to even do that.

    The power of the fossil fuel lobby is immense, but there is a second huge problem: our growth-based economic system (yes, we can have in the short to medium term some green growth and I’m all in favor of job-creating green tech and green energy…) but we still can’t keep an economic system which is based on perpetual, never-ending, exponential growth (growing a n% per year is exponential growth) forever and ever..that’s the system (or systemS) we have today, be it US, EU, China or others. We much educate ourselves and everyone about this elephant in the room, which so few of the general public are aware of. They think it’s not only possible, but necessary, to have an economy based on a built-in need for perpetual endless growth forever and ever.

    Laws of math and laws of physics say otherwise.

    That said, no matter how bad things may get, they could always be even WORSE by even less action (versus “way too little way too late” action, which is our path right now) or by regressive every bit helps make if not a better future, at least for a less-cr*ppy future..that’s a depressing thought, but look into a child’s eyes and you’ll know that busting one’s butt even for “only” the purpose of a “less cr*ppy” future, is still worth is.

    Google for steady-state economy / steady-state economics.

    Best wishes.

  8. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #6: “Joe, I do not mean this in any sort of negatively critical way, but I’ve noticed that the tone of your posts has shifted to acceptance of some of the worst outcomes of AGW.”

    Ian, rather a lot of people have made that shift in the last year, in part because of the insufficient progress in treaty negotiations but also because observations make it clear that climate chnage is accelerating beyond prior projections. The question now is whether the climate Pearl Harbors (Joe’s term) we’re going to get will occur soon enough and get a sufficient response such that things can be kept from getting really bad. Re the polar bears, I’m afraid even the hope of a refugium in the Nares Strait region is becoming thin. I suppose the next step will be of transplanting a colony to Antarctica, although apparently the species does well enough in zoos that there would be some hope of maintaining them long enough for the ice to recover, although that may be a very long wait.

    Joe, when you quote Titley on this subject please give Maslowski a plug.

    [JR: Sure, but as you know, I have featured Maslowski’s work more than just about any blogger and one can’t put everything into every post, although sometimes it seems like I do…..]

    Also, someone here linked this BBC article on the first Cryosat 2 satellite results (regarding Arctic currents), which includes this passage:

    “Scientists know also that there is now a lot of warm water at depth in the Arctic.

    “At present, this deep water’s energy is not allowed to influence the sea-ice because of a buffer of colder, less dense water lying between it and the floes above.

    But if this warm water were made to well up because of wind-driven changes at the surface, it could have a catastrophic impact on the formation and retention of the ice cover.” (emphasis added)

    The scientific provenance of that statement is unclear and it’s the first I’ve heard of such a thing, but the warm water is undeniably present, increased wind exposure very much can enhance upwelling (and does elsewhere), and the whole thing starts to sound awfully tippish.

  9. From Peru says:

    Wikipedia has updated, from the Polar Science Center data, the following figure:

    From the PSC:

    “Monthly average Arctic Ice Volume for Sept 2010 was 4,000 km^3, the lowest over the 1979-2010 period, 78% below the 1979 maximum and 9,400 km^3 or 70% below its mean for the 1979-2009 period.”

    78% of the summmer Arctic sea ice is already gone!

    But I have a question about the Polar Bears:

    The Hudson Bay is seasonally ice-free, but there is a community of polar bears here despite that.

    Why could not the Siberian and Alaskan Polar Bears adapt to a seasonally ice-free ice cover like the Hudson Bay ones?

  10. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #7: Is it not clear that Titley is simply quoting Maslowski’s results? After all, it would make sense for the Navy’s oceanographer to rely on the Navy’s sea ice modeler.

    [JR: I can’t imagine that Titley simply based his analysis on Maslowski, no. He probably has access to more data, and I’m sure would offer a more conservative opinion, which, in some sense, this is.]

  11. Patrick Kloska says:

    EDpeak (#7):

    We need perpetual growth because population is perpetually growing. If you want a steady state economy, stabilize population.

  12. Daron says:

    I was checking the NSIDC website and I noticed that they are showing the arctic sea ice extent declining over the last few days. I was curious if a winter time decline in sea ice extent had ever happened before since records were being taken?

    Here is a link to the image of the decline:

    [JR: It’s real!]

  13. Daron says:

    No doubt, I believe their data. I just meant has it happened before? A winter time decline in sea ice extent?

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Murdoch’s apparat ran this story, with relish, and it took one sentence to see that it was, as ever, breathtakingly dishonest. If only because FoxNews Ltd and its flagship The Fundament (aka The Australian) continue to run unceasing denialist screeds. Even today it has an editorial demanding that coal be burned, apparently until it runs out, because ‘we’ (in factthe mining plutocrats) make lottsa money out of it. Everything will be OK because carbon capture and storage is just ’round the corner, yet another Big Lie, The Fundament’s stock-in-trade. As for Nature selling out, like The Guardian et al, that’s just Big Money speaking, as it does in every aspect of our lives. The exact process in Nature’s case may one day be revealed, or not.

  15. BB says:

    @ 13. I wonder what’s going on there too…The air temps and water temps are all at freezing or below. Obviously something’s got to be happening, perhaps temps beneath the surface water are >32. Or maybe salt water, since it can stay liquid at temps well less than 32, can also ‘melt’ in sub-freezing temps. Even the Northern Atlantic and the Berents current temperatures are sub-freezing.

  16. Ian says:

    Joe, thanks so much for your response.

    Your knowledge regarding the intersection of all those “realisms” is why I and many others read this blog. It is something not many others can offer.

    I apologize in advance for what I’m going to say. I don’t mean to sound dismissive or in any way unappreciative of Joe or everyone here on CP. You’re all great, great people in my book:

    I guess I am just frustrated because I don’t see that realism translated into action. Because of you Joe, we know all these incredibly important things about the future of the earth and human beings. What are we to do then?

    I’m sure Joe and others have been following this issue for decades. I can’t even imagine how insanely frustrating it must be for all of you to be sounding the alarm bells for as long as you have and still feel like it is a losing battle. To have your heart broken that many times must be unbearable at times. But there must still be more we can and should do.

    I know we can point to or other organizations that are inspiring action. They are fighting a noble fight. They can’t be faulted for at least attempting to make things right. But considering the sheer volume of informed people that are out there, could we be making our voices heard much more loudly and could we be much better organized?

    Yes, I think. But, again, I don’t see the attempts to make this happen. It could be that these things are happening but I don’t have access to see them. So my frustration could be very well misguided and will have an outlet soon.

    But if I could literally pick up the phone and call Joe Romm and Bill McKibben and Al Gore and James Hansen and tell them that we need to get everyone on the White House lawn in May to wake people up, then I would make all those phone calls.

    Knowing what I know, if I had the power to contact all the most influential people on this issue, I would do it and I would get them organized. I wouldn’t have them write a letter saying they are concerned. I would have them sit in front of the White House for a month on a hunger strike. I don’t think that such an extreme action should be dismissed or is unrealistic.

    Unfortunately, I am not in a position to talk with any of those people (save you, Joe.) No one will listen to me. But I know there are people reading CP that can call those people and get that organized.

    Why shouldn’t we organize all the most influential people regarding AGW and take the most extreme actions possible? Is something like this already under way but I am not aware of it? Seriously, if someone can call all those people and organize them, can you please do that? If not, give me their phone numbers and I will.

    To Joe and all other CP readers, am I wrong about this?

    Again, I apologize for sounding unappreciative. I know that Joe and many others are working and have worked tirelessly to bring this issue to light. Thank you all for what you have done and will continue to do.

    Take care, everyone.


  17. Don says:

    Daron #12:

    If you look at this figure from the same source you can see that a similar event happened in Jan 2007:

    which, just by pure coincidence (ha!), was followed by the lowest extent ever recorded in September.

  18. Ed Hummel says:

    I hate to keep harping on this, but I really don’t see how our present political system is equal to the task of forcing what must be done in order to stabilize the climate and give the polar bears (and the rest of us) a chance. The Nature article, as rosy and misleading as it is, still represents a head in the sand approach to what is facing us. Many posters here and on other legitimate climate sites, and Joe himself, have alluded to the heavy hand that will result once things really get bad and national triage schemes have to be implemented to save what we can of society. But except for a few of us who can’t see any other way, most have been reluctant to speak the seemingly unspeakable: why wait? Whay not use the constitutional powers of the executive that allows for a state of national emergency to be declared just as in wartime and even ask the Congress to declare that a state of war exists against the human activities that are leading us to this seemingly inevitable disaster. Nothing the Japanese or Germans could do to us in 1941 could be anywhere near as bad as what’s in store for us by mid century on our current path of busiess as usual. Chu and Holdren know what’s going on and they’ve both said that the president has been thoroughly briefed and thoroughly understands the danger. There are also a few members of Congress that know what’s going on. Is the political situation in this country really in such a state that it has totally paralyzed this government and is keeping it from doing what it exists for? What would Roosevelt have done in 2011 instead of 1933 or 1941? If the conspiracy theorists among progressives that firmly believe the president is entirely bought and paid for by the corporate powers are actually correct, then we really are screwed with no hope at all of changing course while we still have a few years(2015?). Anyone who has any influence or access to President Obama or any of his close advisors should be pushing him to look into these seemingly drastic ideas (or something better?) as well as strategies that would convince a critical mass of the American people that such measures are necessary for national survival the way FDR did. People may think national emergency measures would be harsh and a radical curtailment of our freedoms. But it’s really a question of pay me now or pay me later, and Nature makes all the ultimate decisions.

  19. David B. Benson says:

    Polar bears and brown bears (aka grizzlies) have successfully bourne offspring together. The polar bears around Hudson’s Bay have already adaopted to life ashore during the summers.

    While polar bears further north may well die back, the (sub)species is likely to continue through this near-extinction event as their ancestors did during the Eemian interglacial.

    Many other species, on the other hand, …

  20. Deborah Stark says:

    Re: Steve Bloom | Post #8

    You raised the issue of the BBC’s report on Cryosat 2 results regarding Arctic Ocean currents and included an excerpt indicating that scientists are watching the warm water at depth in that region. The excerpt mentions the possible impact of wind-driven changes at the surface on retention and/or development of Arctic ice cover.

    Did you catch this:

    Deep ocean heat is rapidly melting Antarctic ice
    Oceanographer at AGU: Western Antarctic Peninsula is seeing “the highest increase in temperatures of anywhere on Earth.”


    …..As for how fast the ice will melt and in what locations, that depends largely on whether the upwelling warm water comes in contact with the thick ice shelf that crowds the coast and holds the block the glaciers from reaching the sea.

    That, in turn, depends on the winds which drive away the surface waters and make it possible for the deeper waters to rise to the surface, said senior researcher Robert Bindschadler of NASA’s Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County….. END excerpt.

    I have to say this: Since as far back as fall 1999 I have felt that the air in my region (eastern Mass.) is “coming from a different place.” It really bothered me when I first noticed this and that was the only way I could think to articulate my personal sensory experience. I do believe that prevailing wind patterns as we have known them have changed considerably over the last 10-15 years and I also feel that as the Arctic region continues to melt (and Arctic sea surface exposure continues to increase) we are going to see a rather chaotic breakdown of formerly fairly predictable seasonal wind patterns. And that’s just for starters I think.

  21. Ed Hummel says:

    BB at #15, don’t forget that water has its max density at 4C (39F) so any water colder than that will float over it. Also the average freezing point for typical ocean water is around -2C (28F). It’s actually quite easy to understand how deep water can be significantly warmer that surface water, especially in the polar regions in winter, though deniers seem to either be unaware of this fact or else convenietly forget about it. As Joe has pointed out many times over the last year, and what was reflected in the “misquoting” of the “climategate” emails, most of the trapped excess energy in the climate system has been sequestered in the deep ocean, including presumably in the Arctic Ocean, where it’s insideously doing its dirty work to already mess up general circulation patterns world wide; I present 2010’s bizarre weather events that came one after the other as exhibit A!

  22. Wit's End says:

    Deborah, today NPR had a story of the disruptions to flights in Europe, in particular London, where it was described that people were literally crying because their travel plans had been cancelled, due to record-breaking snowfall. The general feeling was that the airport had failed to make adequate preparations, even though the amount of snow was unprecedented.

    If people are sobbing in departure terminals over disrupted vacations, what will they do when all life as we know it (we being, the inhabitants of the developed world) comes abruptly to an excruciating, grinding halt?

    I am so interested in your observations of a change in the air, which would appear to be quite obscure, much as are my observations of the crashing biosphere.

  23. George Ennis says:

    I am not a scientist but I have enough of a background in risk management, statistics to understand what the climatologists have been shouting until they were hoarse.

    Someone asked what can they do. Well I for one have taken time to try and direct some of the media in Canada to the climatologists who can provide them with the science as to what is happening both the certainties and the uncertainties. In particular I would suggest that every person reading this blog take the time to direct media in their country, region, state/province and/or city to the a powerful journalistic tool that they should be availing themselves of. This was covered off by JR on his second post on this blog titled “Have you used the Climate Science Rapid Response Team (CSRRT) yet? ”

    Do I think everyone or anyone listen? I really don’t know but I am prepared to make the effort to try to educate our media to wake up to the climate catastrophe we seem to be facing. I have given up on the political parties. They will not lead on this issue.

  24. Artful Dodger says:

    Ed Hummel #22. The maximum density of fresh water occurs at +4 C, but not for salt water. Sea water sinks as it cools, and does NOT float on warmer water below. A kind of vertical overturning current forms while cooling the surface layer, which can be from 50 to 150 M deep in the Arctic.

    As a consequence, the entire surface water column must cool below -1.6 C before the surface begins freezing. This is why Hudson Bay has been losing Sea Ice Area and Extent for the last 5 days. The Surface Layer in the Eastern side of the bay is between -1.5 C and 0 C right now.

  25. Mary Timus says:

    Joe makes the statement:

    “And the weird thing about citing and criticizing that article is that it quotes heavily from a study by the lead author of the current study, Steven C. Amstrup, of the USGS”

    but Amstrup is no longer with USGS but is now Chief Scientist with Polar Bears International. The latter organization needs to keep potential donors and collaborators optimistic. Take a look at the extent of their “Donate and Help” page on their website. They cannot admit they are essentially on a deathwatch given current and projected emissions – and the demonstrated inability of governments to curb those emissions.

    The tragedy is that many people hearing of this study come away with the idea that new data now shows polar bears to be in less trouble than previously thought. People do not realize the decreased risk is only true should some extremely unlikely events occur. I have talked to at least two people who, having heard sound bites about the paper in Nature, told me that it has been shown that polar bears are not in as much danger as some have claimed. So the authors have served to ease the public’s concerns about climate change – which clearly is not a good or realistic thing to do.

    Kudos on your analysis, Joe, and getting it out in such a timely fashion.

  26. Jim Eaton says:

    Joe, I know you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist, but this post does show that you understand that much of the natural world is gravely threatened by climate change. As a wilderness conservationist, I am alarmed that our current path is leading the earth into its sixth great extinction. Whether or not one thinks that our flora and fauna have value on their own, it is clear that plants and animals are critical to the survival of humans. In terms of extinction, polar bears are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

  27. pete best says:

    Re #24; Polar Bears are how humans work – survival of the cutest and winnng votes. Plenty of other animals and plants are loking extinction in the face but polar bear cubs ae cute and selling them as the face of ACC is a lot easier.

    Blame the media and their expectations of the masses.

  28. Lennart van der Linde says:

    Jim Hansen makes the distinction between ‘tipping point’ and ‘point of no return’. Could it be that the Nature-article/research confuses these two concepts? Maybe technically/theoretically a ‘point of no return’ for melting Artic sea ice has not been reached yet, but we surely seem to be past the ‘tipping point’ and not very far from a ‘point of no return’, on time scales that matter to human civilization.

  29. Daron says:

    Don #18

    Thanks for that link I was curious if it had happened before. It will be interesting to see how the sea ice shapes up next year. With the loss of so much of the old ice this last melt season I would think we could potentially have a fairly low amount of sea ice in September 2011. Of course its only a mater of time till we hit a new record low in sea ice extent.

  30. william green says:

    excellent post, joe.

    In terms you might use, I would suggest that Nature has “jumped the credibility shark” with this article. Or, put another way, If pigs could fly, we’d all need to wear hats with pigsh*t deflectors — true, but not really a useful or important point to make in a (supposedly) leading scientific journal.

    If we are going to bring quality science to the center of the policy discussion on climate, as I feel strongly we must, we need journals like Nature to maintain their credibility, not squander it on irrelevant observations like this.


  31. peter whitehead says:

    The UK ‘Daily Mail’, a conservative, often climate-sceptic paper, has at last noticed something odd is going on:

  32. Eric Rush says:

    I’ve seen no discussion of the possibility of an ice-free Arctic producing an oceanic version of “lake effect snow” over Canada and northern Asia. Ice age anyone?

  33. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent article and analysis Joe, after hearing about this study and its incomprehensible projections of “what we could do” (since that train left the station years ago, probably decades ago for CO2 concentrations to actually be stabilized by 2020) I was looking forward to what you had to say about it.

    A study divorced from the reality of what’s actually happening on the planet they were studying.

  34. Ed Hummel says:

    Artful Dodger #25, thanks for the heads up. I should have remembered about water’s max density being affected by salt content just as all its other critical points are. Next time I’ll think more carefully before I shoot my mouth off. Actually should have been obvious to me since that’s the driving mechanism of the whole ocean conveyor belt. Thanks again for bringing that up.

  35. john atcheson says:

    As always, Joe, you catch the media in their pathetic coverage of AGW … Thanks.

    Nature is normally pretty good at being accurate. Perhaps they believe that by offering hope, they will incentivize action.

    Not smart to do but understandable.

  36. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #10: Joe, I had assumed that Titley’s summer ice-free mnonth by the late 2030s was consistent with Maslowski’s projection of an initial ice-free date 20 years earlier, but maybe I’m wrong. I agree that Titley wouldn’t rely just on Maslowski’s projection, but for that matter it would be irresponsible for Maslowski to just reference his own work when advising Titley. That said, a late 2030s consistently ice-free month is definitely *inconsistent* with everyone else’s results. Anyway, you said you’d ask Titley, so hopefully he’ll be somewhat forthcoming about the provenance of the quote (given that a good chunk of the research is likeley classified).

    Back on the polar bear study, last melt season when I was following the behavior of the ice on a near-daily basis (and discussing same on Neven’s blog), one thing that was very apparent is that the ice was quite mobile in the area of Nares Strait and the upper archipelago, which would seem to be completely inconsistent with the study’s idea of a persistent patch there. Also relevant is that Nares Strait never even froze solid last winter. Perhaps bears could still survive an entirely ice-free period so long as it was short in that area, but I’m just not seeing any guarantee of that.

  37. Esop says:

    Just wasted a few minutes over at Steve Goddards anti-science blog. I’m getting more and more convinced that this fellow is just posing as a denier, in order to slowly discredit them all with over-the-top nonsense. That site is just getting too close to to be serious.

    On another note, I understand that it is tempting for the deniers to push the recent cold snap in certain locations, but the irony is that they are just shooting themselves in the foot. Global average temps and troposphere temps are currently at an all time high, so the unusual air distribution is a perfect example of what is happening when the circulation systems are messed up through anthropogenic greenhouse induced warming.
    The fact is that the overall warming and resulting messed up circulation patterns cause deadly heatwaves in the summer in addition to deadly cold snaps in the winter. The lesson is that we should do even more to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions than if heat was the “only” problem.

    It is high time the MSM does its job and inform the world about what is going on.
    The professional deniers probably can’t believe their luck with the current circulation patterns with large areas of the Arctic being way warmer than continental Europe.

  38. Bravo, Joe. Thank you very much for this terrific analysis.

    Re: Benson @ #20 — “The polar bears around Hudson’s Bay have already adapted to life ashore during the summers.”

    It is completely misguided to say that the Western Hudson Bay polar bears have adapted to life on land. All polar bears are physiologically capable of subsisting on their fat reserves for some period of time when they are unable to feed on marine mammals; food deprivation for days or even weeks is a normal part of a polar bear’s life in the Arctic. (Even polar bears that are the most skilled at hunting only manage to catch a seal about once every five days or so.) But the Western Hudson Bay polar bears are food-deprived for an extraordinarily long period of time while they are marooned on land during the ice-free season; and, as the ice-free period on Hudson Bay has lengthened considerably due to climate warming, they are already pushing the limits of what their bodies can endure. Female bears there are in the worst situation: Pregnant bears come off the ice with the rest of the WHB bears when it breaks up in early July, and then they must endure about 9 months of food-deprivation — while they travel inland to the denning area, construct a den, give birth, and nurse their young cubs until they are able to travel out to the sea ice. Mother bears aren’t able to feed again until they can return to the ice accompanied by their young cubs and resume hunting in March. And then they only have about four months in which to catch seals and accumulate fat – while also nursing their cubs – before they’re obliged to head ashore again for more food-deprivation during another ice-free season. It won’t be long before progressively earlier breakup and late freeze-up will mean that skinny females simply cannot support pregnancy and/or cannot successfully rear their young cubs. The Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears is likely to be the first group of these iconic animals to disappear as the direct result of loss of sea ice due to climate change. This population of polar bears has already clearly been declining (this has been established unequivocally by hands-on longitudinal research). Other populations of polar bears are also already declining for the same reasons, and all polar bears will ultimately be threatened by the loss of their sea-ice habitat. And living on land and feeding on terrestrial food sources is simply not an adaptation that will work physiologically for polar bears. They need to eat the blubber-rich bodies of marine mammals. Perhaps if they had hundreds of thousands of years in which to adapt – not behaviorally, but physiologically – that might be a manageable transformation; however, the timetable at issue is decades at the most.

  39. John McCormick says:

    RE # 39

    Jenny, your description of the physiological limitation of Hudson Bay polar bears to adapt is about as good as anyone can describe. Are you actually studying them?

    Thank you.

    John McCormick

  40. monkey says:

    I doubt the entire polar bear population will become extinct, rather it is those in the Southern areas of habitat that are at greatest risk. Lets remember they extend all the way from the southern tip of Hudson Bay (around the 52nd parallel) right up to the 80th parallel and I highly doubt even under the worse case scenario temperatures at the 80th parallel will reach that of the southern tip of Hudson Bay. Also, how far can they migrate since if they can migrate northwards they are less threatened then if they are more stationary.

  41. John McCormick @ #40

    Thanks very much. Feel free to drop me a note via the contact info on my website, and I’d be happy to let you know about my work vis-a-vis polar bears.

  42. Prokaryotes says:

    peter whitehead said “The UK ‘Daily Mail’, a conservative, often climate-sceptic paper, has at last noticed something odd is going on:

    Interesting, why is the MSM ignoring the reason for the current weather anomalies of their weather “blockbuster coverage”? The headlines focus just on the symptoms i.e. “current global air traffic chaos”.

  43. Eve says:

    Can someone clarify exactly what is a “linchpin species.”


  44. Neven says:

    I’d like to echo what EDpeak (comment #7) says:

    “The power of the fossil fuel lobby is immense, but there is a second huge problem: our growth-based economic system (yes, we can have in the short to medium term some green growth and I’m all in favor of job-creating green tech and green energy…) but we still can’t keep an economic system which is based on perpetual, never-ending, exponential growth (growing a n% per year is exponential growth) forever and ever..that’s the system (or systemS) we have today, be it US, EU, China or others. We much educate ourselves and everyone about this elephant in the room, which so few of the general public are aware of. They think it’s not only possible, but necessary, to have an economy based on a built-in need for perpetual endless growth forever and ever.

    Laws of math and laws of physics say otherwise.

    That said, no matter how bad things may get, they could always be even WORSE by even less action (versus “way too little way too late” action, which is our path right now) or by regressive every bit helps make if not a better future, at least for a less-cr*ppy future..that’s a depressing thought, but look into a child’s eyes and you’ll know that busting one’s butt even for “only” the purpose of a “less cr*ppy” future, is still worth is.

    Google for steady-state economy / steady-state economics.”

    I’ve recently written an article about this subject called Infinite Growth and the Crisis Cocktail.

  45. snoocks2 says:

    Can someone tell me the difference between the Kodiak bears of British Columbia and the Rockies and the Polar Bear? It seems if these two great species share some common ground and ancestry, then the Polar Bears would begin to adapt to the shrinking of the ice floes.

  46. Steve Bloom says:

    snoocks2, reverse evolution would be possible, but the polar bears won’t have enough time for that. Survival of polar bear genes though inter-breeding with brown bears seems to be possible, but that’s not exactly survival of the species. PBs do well enough in zoos, so are probably not at risk of extinction so long as we have the resources for such luxuries (not guaranteed — google for the fate of many of the anmimals formerly resident at the Kabul zoo), but there are many north polar ice-dependent species for which that’s not true (narwhals, e.g.). It’s not just the bears at stake, it’s a whole ecology.

  47. riverat says:

    I think there will continue to be suitable habitat for polar bears on the northern end of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago for quite a while even if the Arctic sea ice melts in the summer. It’s the bears at the southern end of their range that will suffer. Hudson Bay right now and the northern coasts of the continents.

  48. Ronaldo says:

    If a species is destined to flourish/evolve, it will do so. Survival of the fittest has proven its mantra time and time again. The Tasmanian Tiger was hunted to extinction. But do we really miss it ?

    The problem is people still think polar bears are these cute, fluffy toys kids can hug. Guess what, they’re natural predators ! If they do disappear, another species will take its place (my prediction is Eskimos).

    While it’s sad the environment has gone south, I’m more annoyed that academia and gov’t around the world are more concerned with data based on linear mathematics.

    Oceans, currents and climatic figures in the last 1,000 years are readily available. If everyone’s agreed on the outcome, then why not concentrate on easily applied solutions than wrestling with hard-fought idealised outcomes?

    Think of it as cancer or AIDS, generally irreversible and there is no known cure. Why not concentrate on it’s management ?

    Instead of trying to save the planet, why not learn to live on it at its worst ?

    More than half the crops and livestocks raised for human consumption are already genetically modified. We have a technology to produce clothing to meet the challenge of varying climatic conditions.

    I say accept the future, it’s here.

    Five years ago I was moved and scared by Al Gore’s doco. Now I’m more optimistic. There is a reason we’re on top of the food chain. We will prevail.