The Poster Boys Of Global Warming Thrive In The Icy Arctic
Many polar bear populations worldwide are now stable, if not increasing.
A bitter wind blows off the Arctic Ocean but the mother polar bear and her two cubs standing just 50ft in front of me are in their element.
For more than an hour I watch from a boat just offshore, transfixed and oblivious to the below-freezing temperatures, as the four-month-old twins gambol across the snow.
For years polar bears have been the poster boys of global warming – routinely reported to be threatened with extinction due to melting ice-packs and rising sea temperatures.
Hope: Despite concerns about future extinction, polar bear populations appear to have stabalised
One prominent scientist said their numbers would be reduced by 70 per cent by 2050 while global warming proponents – including Al Gore and Sir David Attenborough – used emotive imagery to highlight their ‘demise’.
Yet there is one small problem: many polar bear populations worldwide are now stable, if not increasing.
According to a report compiled this year on Canadian polar bear populations by academics at Lakehead University, Ontario, only one out of 13 areas showed declining numbers. In fact, in some areas numbers have steadily increased.
In the Foxe Basin area in the Arctic Circle, aerial surveys show polar bear numbers have risen from 2,200 in 1994 to 2,580 in 2010, while the population in West Hudson Bay has increased from 935 in 2004 to 1,013 in 2011.
Last week I travelled to Kaktovik, Alaska – an Inupiat village of 239 hardy souls on Barter Island at the edge of the Arctic – which has become an unlikely boom town thanks to an influx of polar bears.
Village administrator Tori Sims, 26, beamed as she told me: ‘This has been a great year for the bears.
‘They are fat, happy and healthy. We’re seeing a boom in tourism which brings much-needed revenue to the village and helps us continue to live the traditional life we cherish.
‘I’ve lived here all my life and there are more bears every year. I read stories about polar bears being on the brink of extinction because of global warming, look out of my window and start to laugh.’
For decades, large-scale hunting had decimated the polar bear population, and in 1973 a global hunting ban was imposed.
In the 1960s, Russian scientist Savva Uspenskii estimated that global numbers as low as 5,000 to 8,000.
Good news: Mail on Sunday reporter Caroline Graham travelled to Kaktovik last week to check progress
But today, even the WWF cites estimates of 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears living in Canada, Greenland, the northern Russian coast, islands off the Norwegian coast, and the north-west Alaskan coast.
In Kaktovik, bear numbers are embraced in the South Beaufort Sea sub-population and the most recent study by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 2006 reported that numbers had dropped from 1,842 bears to 1,525 over the previous five years.
A new study is under way with a report due early in 2014.
But on Barter Island it is a more positive story: official figures have fluctuated from 51, when records started in 2002, to a pitiful ‘low’ of only 18 bears in 2010.
But there were a record 80 bears recorded last year and this year US Fish & Wildlife puts the figure at 58, though locals believe it is higher.
Carla Sims Kayotuk, who heads the ‘nanook patrol’ which keeps the bears out of the village in Kaktovik, said: ‘Bears come and go. They are notorious for going long distances.
‘Authorities say there are 58 but that’s just what they counted here in Kaktovik. They also monitored a wider area from the air and counted 91 bears.
Others, however, disagree, and say that while Kaktovik appears to have plenty of bears, it doesn’t mean there is a healthy wider population.
Guide Bruce Inglangasuk said: ‘Any idiot can see that climate change is affecting us here. There is no ice where there should be ice.’
Walt Audi, 74, a former pilot who now owns the 11-room Waldo Arms hotel, agreed.
He said: ‘I’ve been here 50 years. We used to have icebergs floating offshore at this time of year and the ice would come right in, even during summer.
‘Now it’s 150 miles offshore. The bears are hungry so they are coming here looking for food until the ocean freezes and they can head back out to hunt seals.’
Those who insist the bear population is healthy are not popular.
Dr Susan Crockford, an evolutionary biologist and expert on polar bears, was criticised as a ‘climate change denier’ when she published a paper called Ten Good Reasons Not To Worry About Polar Bears earlier this year.
Population forecasting expert Dr J Scott Armstrong agrees: ‘The decision by the US Senate in 2008 to name the polar bear as an endangered species because of global warming was based on flawed information.
‘The fact is it is almost impossible to get an accurate figure for the number of polar bears – they do not stay in one territory.’