Bye-Polar Disorder: Judge Upholds ‘Threatened’ Listing for Polar Bear, Leaving It on Road to Extinction

A federal judge today upheld the George W. Bush administration’s decision to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The ruling is a blow to environmental groups that wanted the bear listed as endangered, thereby giving it more protections, and industry groups and others that don’t want it listed at all.

The original Bush decision meant listing the polar bear as “threatened” because of its melting polar sea ice habitat, but then doing nothing to actually protect that polar habitat from its primary threat, greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

As I wrote at the time, the Department of Interior suffers from a rare form of bipolar disorder called bye-polar disorder.  On the one hand, then DOI Secretary Kempthorne explicitly wanted “to allow continuation of vital energy production in Alaska,” while on the other hand the DOI noted:

  • The polar bears need sea ice for feeding.
  • The sea ice is being destroyed by human-caused emissions, faster than the models had predicted.
  • Thus, the polar bear is endangered.

Bye-polar disorder is apparently hard to diagnose.  You can read the 116-page ruling of U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia here, but he is no diagnostician:  Sullivan said the plaintiffs challenging the listing “have failed to demonstrate that the agency’s listing determination rises to the level of irrationality.”  Oh, it wasn’t irrational for the pro-oil Bushies, but for bears, it was just nuts.

Let’s be clear here:  “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.

The climate models have left people with the impression that summer Arctic sea ice will survive past 2050, but reality is already worse than the IPCC’s worst-case scenario.  As I discussed in my post last month, “Arctic sea ice volume: The death spiral continues,” it is extremely likely the Arctic will be virtually ice free in the summer within about two decades, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it happened within one.

Regular readers can skip this part.

In November, Rear Admiral David Titley, the Oceanographer of the Navy, testified that  “the volume of ice as of last September has never been lower” in the last several thousand years.” Titley, who is also the Director of Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, said he has told the Chief of Naval Operations that “we expect to see four weeks of basically ice free conditions in the mid to late 2030s.”

Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School has “projected a (virtually) ice-free fall by 2016 (+/- 3 yrs).” Contrary to some reporting, that projection has been unchanged for years, though Maslowski is in the process of creating a more sophisticated model that he expects “will improve prediction of sea ice melt,” as he explained to me recently.

Until then, we have some new observational data of Canadian sea ice thickness and this remarkable figure of sea ice volume since 1979 from Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice Blog, based on data from the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center [click to enlarge]:


Maslowski’s linear projection is based on a combined model and data trendline focusing on ice volume.  By “ice-free,” Maslowski tells me he means more than an 80% drop from the 1979-2000 summer volume baseline of ~200,00 km^3.  Some sea ice above Greenland and Eastern Canada may survive into the 2020s, but the Arctic as we’ve known it will be gone.  And irreversibly so — again contrary to some misreporting (see “Polar bear, Arctic sea ice all-but doomed: Misleading Nature cover story misleads the media, public“).

Whether the Arctic goes virtually ice-free by 2019 — or whether it takes another decade — the outcome is now all but inescapable.  In September, National Snow and Ice Data Center’s director Mark Serreze said, “The volume of ice left in the Arctic likely reached the lowest ever level this month” and “I stand by my previous statements that the Arctic summer sea ice cover is in a death spiral. It’s not going to recover.”

The death spiral is real and quite consequential for humanity.  In September, a first-of-its-kind analysis by an international team of 18 top scientists found “less ice covers the Arctic today than at any time in recent geologic history” and this ice loss isunexplainable by any of the known natural variabilities.”  They concluded:

Reviewed geological data indicate that the history of Arctic sea ice is closely linked with climate changes driven primarily by greenhouse and orbital forcings and associated feedbacks. This link is reflected in the persistence of the Arctic amplification, where fast feedbacks are largely controlled by sea-ice conditions.

Judge Sullivan himself wrote in a footnote:

“Certainly, where global warming has been identified as the primary threat to the polar bear’s sea ice habitat and the agency has acknowledged that the global warming trend is unlikely to reverse itself, a conclusion that the species is … ‘in danger of extinction’ has undeniable appeal.”

Bye-bye, polar bear.

And yes, I’m aware that just as some summer ice may hang around for a while, so too will some polar bears, but Ursus maritimus as a whole will be irreversibly doomed.  Homo ‘sapiens’ sapiens will also be in trouble, too, when the Arctic goes ice free.

A 2008 study led by David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) concluded (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“):

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 it continues, the recent trend in sea ice loss may triple overall Arctic warming, causing large emissions in carbon dioxide and methane from the tundra this century (for a review of recent literature on the tundra, see “Science stunner: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting; NSF issues world a wake-up call: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming”).  Indeed, Lawrence himself said, “Our study suggests that, if sea-ice continues to contract rapidly over the next several years, Arctic land warming and permafrost thaw are likely to accelerate.”

A February study by NSIDC with conservative assumptions concluded, “Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100.”  The paleoclimate record is not reassuring (see “The methane hydrate feedback revisited“)

The time to act is a while ago, but now is better than later.  The polar bear may be doomed, but we aren’t….

Related Post:

Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Peter S. Mizla

These beautiful animals are having their habitats virtually melt out from under them. Endangered?-perhaps 10 years ago- at the rate of the arctic melt, their predicament has become far worse.

The ‘Bi-Polar’ disorder is with the Judge- who obviously does not have the information on disappearing ice in the mid to high arctic.

June 30 at 7:32pm


You can vote for the story here.

Climate Change & Bye-Polar Disorder: Judge Upholds ‘Threatened’ Listing for Polar Bear, All But Dooming It to Extinction​litics/comments/idums/clim​ate_change_byepolar_disord​er_judge_upholds/.

June 30 at 10:42pm

Richard Brenne

Just to combine the issues of your last two posts, has anyone considered just cutting to the chase and dropping an atomic bomb on each remaining polar bear? I mean anyone other than Sarah Palin.

June 30 at 11:28pm


Crazy… da da da daaa …. Crazy … da da da daaa​p-content/uploads/2011/06/​bachmann1_tp3-feature-thre​e.jpg

June 30 at 11:42pm

Richard Brenne

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan and all those who don’t feel polar bears are endangered should dress in seal suits, go swimming in the Arctic Ocean and emerge through holes in the ice to see what endangered means.

And when the Arctic is ice and polar-bear free, they can swim in them to the coast of South Africa where the Great White Sharks feed.

July 1 at 2:58pm


Shell Oil President Marvin Odum has faith that his company can develop vast reserves in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast. But he’d like to get on with exploratory drilling to tap into a resource that could be crucial to meeting the country’s energy needs.​ednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hp​FXufn1XRRmcVw4DjCP9anqgLTA​?docId=934e94350644444bb63​b90a8b618cb0c

July 1 at 12:36am


Haha, what a great picture to start the article. These animals seem to have great personality, and it will be a shame to see their lives become increasingly harder over the coming years. Unfortunately, it seems the threat to polar bears has not really swayed the public’s actions towards preventing global warming. Nevertheless, in my opinion, they ought to be part of effective messaging, along with the litany of other threats (and new job opportunities to change course).

Great article and great messaging here!

July 1 at 4:09am


Also it’s what George Orwell expressed superbly in his masterpiece 1984 where he coined the word DoubleThink – “The ability to hold two conflicting views in your mind at once and believe them both”.

July 1 at 6:01am

Donna Eyssi

freakin moron!

July 1 at 6:58am


Judge Rejects Sarah Palin On Global Warming, Keeps Polar Bears On Threatened List.

Polar bear debate.

A heated debate was created from a “viewpoint” article in the journal Ecological Complexity which Soon coauthored with Dyck, Baydack, Legates, Baliunas, Ball and Hancock. Several of these authors are known for their skeptical views on global warming. In this paper they argue that climate change may not be the ultimate control factor on polar bear survival. Specifically they argue that there has been no spring warming in the Hudson Bay area over a 70 year period. As an alternative they list several other factors which may have a negative effect on the polar bear populations, such as increased human-bear interaction.[20] The Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, cited this paper in a bid to get polar bears delisted from the U.S. Endangered Species Act.[21] Some polar bear scientists and environmental scientists, including Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher, responded with a viewpoint article in the same journal. They argued that the alternative explanations for polar bear decline are “Largely unsupported by the data available.”[14] Andrew Derocher was reported by Anchorage Daily News as saying “I would venture to guess that, beyond Markus Dyck, none of them had ever seen a polar bear”​ki/Willie_Soon#Polar_bear_​debate.

July 1 at 7:19pm


Judge Rejects Sarah Palin On Global Warming, Keeps Polar Bears On Threatened List.​reen/2011/07/01/259129/jud​ge-rejects-palin-polar-bea​rs/

July 1 at 7:19pm

Miles Lunn

It would be sad to see these lovely creatures disappear. My understanding though is the polar bears have a large range of territory and they would be wiped out in the Southern areas, but not the Northern areas after all, the temperature difference is well over 10C between the warmest and coldest parts.

July 1 at 9:06pm

Chris Sanderson

Is the rest of the world dependent on a US domestic judge to determine this issue? If so, why?/Chris.

July 1 at 9:12pm

Marion Delgado

If you read the scholarly Watts Up With That you’d know Climate Progress has been shut down and all comments disappeared!

July 2 at 4:19am

Michael F. Sarabia

Bye-Polar Bears! You are dying, before my grandchildren go to college where they will study history and the techer will give them for homework an essay on “What were they thinking? Were they crazy or was there a mental disorder? A Lemming disease? Did they decide humanity lived long enough and it is time to go off the cliff? Will they be able to make sense of us? I am totally unable, are they able to think?

July 2 at 5:42pm

Comments are closed.