July 24, 2007

Polar Bears: Times is on their side

Filed under: Adaptation, Animals, Arctic, Polar

The New York Times sets the stage for a new movie, scheduled to open in the coming weeks, called “Arctic Tale” – a fictitious account of the struggle of polar bears and walruses against a changing climate. In his July 23, 2007 article “Cooking Up a Fable on Melting Ice” Andy Revkin describes how, using footage filmed over the course of several years, filmmakers Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, assembled a story “exploring challenges facing polar bears and walruses, two familiar denizens of the icy, but warming, seas at the top of the world.”

The idea is to create a “new genre of wildlife adventure movies” composed of scenes of wild animals coping with trials and tribulations of the real world and its constantly changing conditions. The movie is apparently geared towards the same folks who lined up to see the likes of pseudo-documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth” and “March of the Penguins” – the former being all about climate change, while the latter went light on the subject. “Arctic Tale” sounds like it will be somewhere in between.

While Revkin’s article is replete with standard descriptions of a changing Arctic climate and its impacts of the species which make a living there and includes the possibility that human activity is behind it all, he is careful not to go too far overboard. When it comes to the fate of the polar bear, Revkin leaves it with “This shifting conditions prompted federal scientists last December to propose a ‘threatened’ listing for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act and a fresh assessment of the species’ prospects is under way” rather than echoing alarmist cries of “polar bears headed for extinction.”

As we have documented on numerous occasions (see for example, here, or here ) polar bears, as a species, have survived through several extended periods, lasting many thousand years, when conditions were warmer than present. The existence of a warmer Arctic in the past (both during the current interglacial warm period, as well as during the one prior) is well documented in the scientific literature and those that act as if this time around such conditions will wipe out the polar bear simply ignore scientific fact. A thorough and excellent review of the past, present, and future climate of the Arctic and how it has, does, and may impact polar bears can be found at the new web site of the Science and Public Policy Institute on pages 3 through 6 of its issues paper “Current Issues in Climate Science: Focus on the Poles.”

That polar bears have survived through previous warm periods is not to say that polar bears will have an easy time of it this time around. Obviously, humans have constructed barriers that may impinge upon the bears preferred methods of adaptation—we hunt them, we relocate them, we destroy them if they become a nuisance to our civilization, a situation which may increase in frequency and intensity as the bears are forced to spend more time on land and less on the ice floes. But, nevertheless, the bears will do their best to keep up with a changing climate, just as they have done since their species grew separate from brown bears some 200,000 years ago.

The filmmakers of the “Arctic Tale” seem familiar with the bear’s history and their ability to adapt. Revkin closed his article with this insightful message from them:

Despite the challenges of the ice retreat (the ice helps polar bears, for example, stalk and ambush seals, and is a haven for walrus pups), [Robertson] and Ravetch said they were convinced that both species would endure.

“Polar bears and walruses are resourceful learners, so over the short term they’ll find new ways to hunt and live, Ravetch said. “But they can’t do the impossible, and in the long term we really don’t know what will happen to them, which is also true for ourselves. It’s going to be a journey for every creature on the planet.

The Earth’s ever-changing climate has always favored the species that were the most adaptable—that is, able to change their behaviors to best suit the conditions around them. Today’s existence of polar bears is a testament to their possession of such a trait. Hopefully, this feature, rather than a woe-is-them tone, will be the focus of “Arctic Tale.”




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