Great excerpt from a book on the fate of polar bears, including a super-thoughtful discussion of why even highly reputable scientists turn to melodrama, in the under-appreciated Pacific Standard.
Called: The Fuzzy Face of Climate Change. Highly recommended.
Speaking of excerpts, here's a couple. The set-up question: Are polar bears threatened with extinction?
Actual data is hard to come by—polar bears live in cold places with bad access to cozy university towns—and surveying them is time-consuming and expensive. Subpopulation by subpopulation, the numbers are all over the place. Near Greenland, one subpopulation grew to nearly two and a half times the size it had been in the 1970s; one group in the extreme north of Hudson Bay had been stable or moderately improving since the early 2000s; and in the Beaufort Sea of Alaska, Amstrup was suggesting that the polar bears could be entirely gone by 2050. About half of the subpopulations hadn’t even been studied enough for anybody to make any predictions at all. In western Hudson Bay, near Churchill, a bitter fight was being waged in the media between rival camps, one who said the subpopulation had declined by 22 percent over the course of 17 years, and another who said the population had grown enough to allow for a big increase in trophy hunting.
Introducing an awe-inspiring scientist:
Whenever anybody needed a prediction about the future of polar bears, [Steven] Amstrup was the crystal ball into which they gazed. One minute he’d be publishing papers dense with statistics, and the next he’d be chatting with a television host, detailing the crisis in calm, measured tones. He was never hysterical and always struck the right balance between jargon and a heartfelt appeal to humanity’s better impulses. It didn’t hurt that he was tall and better-looking than anybody with a PhD has a right to be. With sandy-blond hair, a square jaw, and broad shoulders, no wonder the cameras loved Amstrup. To this day, he remains the only person I’ve ever met who can look suave while wearing thermal underwear and a hat with chinstraps.
So this was [skeptic] Rocky’s [Robert Rockwell's] grand theory, I thought: as the Arctic warmed and the sea ice shrank, the bears might somehow manage to adapt. Rocky’s ideas were engaging, and he was a good salesman, but I wasn’t entirely buying it. Compared to a blubber-laden seal carcass, the occasional bony goose was hardly an adequate meal. Probably not quite enough to launch a wholesale revolution in the conventional wisdom regarding polar bears and global warming.
Later I found Rocky sitting heavily on his bunk in a room that was redolent of graduate students with limited access to shower facilities. “Look,” he said, “I don’t want you to come away from your time here thinking that we’re against these people. But there are things going on that affect polar bears that are not getting a full hearing. The polar bear is really special to me, but the Endangered Species Act and the commission of proper science are more important.”
I wanted the polar-bear story to be simple and stark. But the more I learned, the more melodramatic it became, with everyone slipping into roles that were far too easy to caricature.
The story is drawn from Zac Unger's forthcoming book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye. If the excerpt is any guide, the book will be terrific, with reviews to match. Here's your chance to get ahead of the curve when it comes to putting polar bear research in context. A great long read.