Polar bears in scientific tug of war

ResearchBlogging.orgIt's not just Alaskan governors who have a problem with treating polar bears as a threatened species. For some reason, a lot of people who just can't bring themselves to accept the idea that we're heating up the planet seem to have it in for poor old Ursus maritimus. A year ago, the journal Ecological Complexity published an attack on the theory that the population of polar bears widely considered most at risk from climate change wasn't actually at risk at all. The inevitable rebuttal just appeared, and the exchange raises some questions about the peer-review process.

In a "Viewpoint" contribution to the journal, "Polar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change: Are warming spring air temperatures the "ultimate" survival control factor?" we read that "the extrapolation of polar bear disappearance is highly premature." Who is making such a claim?

The lead author is one Markus Dyck of Nunavut Arctic College, which is a relatively young little school in the Canadian territorial capital of Iqaluit. He teaches environmental studies, but doesn't seem to have much of a record dealing with marine mammals, or polar bears in particular, as a pratising scientist. He is responsible for writing, in a grant proposal for the International Polar Year, that "there is no information available about how, and if, climate change is affecting polar bears in Nunavut." This despite the fact that anyone with access to a university library can find dozens of papers on exactly that. I wrote a report on the subject back in 2005 and had no trouble finding relevant scientific literature.

Lending a hand are the familiar Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, a pair of Cambridge astrophysicists who have long demonstrated a hostility to anthropogenic global warming. Their work has been soundly discredited. Also along for the ride is Tim Ball, another pseudo-skeptic who hasn't published anything on the subject in over a decade and who has even less credibility.

Then there's David Legates, who was forced to stop calling himself the "state climatologist" for Delaware. Richard Baydack of the University of Manitoba I'm not familiar with, and the final author, L.O. Hancock, gives an address-only affiliation, which turns out to be the World Bank.

The abstract contains phrases like "Any role of external forcing by anthropogenic greenhouse gases remains difficult to identify" so you know this isn't going to be dull paper. They authors then go on to list a series of alleged problems with the idea that a warming planet is melting icy seal habitat and therefore endangering the bears' survival. To wit: (1) Western Hudson Bay isn't warming, (2) declining bear populations are the fault of research, hunting or tourism, (3) any remaining ecological anomalies are the result of natural fluctuations, and (4) even if the climate is warming, the the bears will simply learn to eat plants. Therefore, they write:

... we believe it is premature to make the "one-dimensional" predictions about how climate change may affect polar bears in general and there is no ground for raising public alarm about any imminent extinction of Arctic polar bears. The multiple known and likely stresses interact dynamically and may contribute in an additive fashion to negative effects on polar bears.

Now comes the rebuttal, "Response to Dyck et al. (2007) on polar bears and climate change in western Hudson Bay," in which Ian Stirling, the author of many a study that Dyck couldn't find, Andrew Derocher, William Gough and Karyn Rode, respectable scientists all, search for evidence to support each claim. Not too surprisingly, they conclude, "we found little support for any."

For example, Dyck et al. write that there is no evidence of warming in Hudson Bay for the last 70 years. Stirling et al. produce a lengthy of list of data sources to the contrary. The rest of the paper follows that pattern, right until their closing comments:

In contrast, research conducted since 1997 (the date of collection of the last data reported in Stirling et al., 1999) continues to be consistent with the thesis that climate warming in western Hudson Bay is the major factor causing the sea ice to breakup at progressively earlier dates, resulting in polar bears coming ashore to fast for several months in progressively poorer condition. That in turn has resulted in reduced reproduction and survival of young, subadult, and older (but not prime) adults. As the population began to decline, the hunting quota for Inuit in Nunavut was no longer sustainable so the decline accelerated over time.

Poor polar bears. But I suppose that's what happens when you become a poster child for climate change.
I STIRLING, A DEROCHER, W GOUGH, K RODE (2008). Response to Dyck et al. (2007) on polar bears and climate change in western Hudson Bay Ecological Complexity, 5 (3), 193-201 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecocom.2008.01.004
M DYCK, W SOON, R BAYDACK, D LEGATES, S BALIUNAS, T BALL, L HANCOCK (2007). Polar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change: Are warming spring air temperatures the "ultimate" survival control factor? Ecological Complexity, 4 (3), 73-84 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecocom.2007.03.002


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Let's remember that "Ecological Complexity" is a very young journal, publishing just four issues per year. The original publication, classified not as a research article, but as a "viewpoint", surfaced in the journal's fourth year.

As such, EC needs to establish itself and will be less picky on the quality of contribution it is willing to accept. That Stirling et al. selected this journal comes as no surprise. The reaction from more established journals would likely have been less enthusiastic.

@Lurker --- Stirling et al. didn't select this journal, Dyck et al. did. Stirling et al. responded.
If anyone mentions the paper by Dyck et al. you can always point out that it was not peer-reviewed. How do I know? If you look at the journal, you will see that it was submitted on 1 March 2007, and accepted on 2 March 2007. Peer review doesn't work that fast. By contrast, the paper by Stirling et al. was submitted on 1 June 2007, revised on 22 November 2007, and accepted on 8 January 2008.

By ecologist (not verified) on 26 Sep 2008 #permalink

@ecologist --- yes, my mistake.

Good point on the dates as well.

whoever discusses this topic above should also look at Dyck et al. 2008 (Dyck, M.G. et al., Reply to response to Dyck et al. (2007) on polar bears and climate change in western Hudson Bay by Stirling et al. (2008), Ecol. Complex. (2008), doi:10.1016/j.ecocom.2008.05.00).

By detlef hansen (not verified) on 02 Oct 2008 #permalink

Not sure but who is this james hyrnshynsyn anyway?

By everett k (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink