Archive ScienceWatch

 ScienceWatch
Andrew E. Derocher talks with ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about this month's Fast Moving Front in the field of Environment/Ecology. The author has also sent along images of their work.
Derocher Article: Polar bears in a warming climate
Authors: Derocher, AE;Lunn, NJ;Stirling, I
Journal: INTEGR COMP BIOL, 44 (2): 163-176 APR 2004
Addresses: Univ Alberta, Dept Biol Sci, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E9, Canada.
Univ Alberta, Dept Biol Sci, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E9, Canada.
Canadian Wildlife Serv, Edmonton, AB T6H 3S5, Canada.

Photo (enlarge): Senior author Andrew Derocher with a 4 month old polar bear cub caught in the Beaufort Sea during a population monitoring study.


 Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

The paper was a timely overview and synthesis of the possible impacts of climate warming on polar bears. The paper has been used by a wide variety of scientists working on other Arctic marine mammals, sea ice dynamics, and climate warming, as a global biodiversity issue.

Figure 1: +details
Click figure to enlarge and read description.
Figure 2:
Click figure to enlarge and read description.

Soon after publication, polar bears became the flagship, or more commonly termed the "poster species," for climate change. Conservation groups seized on the findings and the grim predictions for polar bears as their sea ice habitat rapidly disappears. The paper was central to the body of research that was used to assess polar bears for listing as a threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act, which was a hot topic of debate.

Public profile in popular media likely played a role in increasing the awareness of scientists to the publication. The three authors of this paper have published extensively on polar bears and thus there was existing credibility that enabled a forward-looking view on how the species might respond to climate warming.

Although projecting into the future is a difficult undertaking, the cautious and logical arguments used in the paper were consistent with the ecology of polar bears and the principles of conservation biology.

 Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

The paper is a synthesis of existing studies and takes what we have learned about the natural history and ecology of polar bears and puts this information into a context of habitat loss brought about by climate warming. The work builds on the experience of the three authors (Andrew E. Derocher, Nicholas J. Lunn, and Ian Stirling) who, cumulatively, have spent over 75 years studying the ecology of polar bears.

 Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

Polar bears are threatened in the longer term by a warming climate directly due to loss of annual sea ice which is their primary habitat. The paper examines a possible range of effects and the symptoms that a top-level carnivore would be expected to show from large-scale habitat loss.

 How did you become involved in this research and were there any particular problems encountered along the way?

"The paper was central to the body of research that was used to assess polar bears for listing as a threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act, which was a hot topic of debate."

The paper is a natural product of long-term population monitoring that all three authors have been involved with. The major difficulty in writing this paper was finding the balance between what we know about the ecology of polar bears and what we think might happen in the future. Nobody has a crystal ball and predicting the future can be a fool's game, so the work had to rigorously support each component and treat them more as hypotheses rather than predictions.

 Where do you see your research leading in the future?

Long-term monitoring of polar bear populations provided the basis for this publication and the three authors have continued to pursue this as a primary research goal. Unfortunately of the 19 populations of polar bears worldwide, only four are monitored with any regularity that allows insight into their status. It is deemed crucial for long-term conservation planning to establish another two or three monitored populations where basic research can examine the ecology of polar bears as the climate warms.

 Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

The publication was the foundation of the threatened species listing in the United States and the listing of this species is still opposed by some special interest groups. As more species are examined for threats posed by climate warming, the polar bear will be viewed as the test case for climate warming impacts on biodiversity. The importance of this issue has only begun and it will have far reaching implications on society and thus on our political institutions.

Andrew E. Derocher, Ph.D.
Chair, IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group
Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission

Keywords: possible impacts of climate warming on polar bears, threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act, Arctic marine mammals, sea ice dynamics, climate warming, global biodiversity, climate change, studying the ecology of polar bears, top-level carnivore, large-scale habitat loss, climate warming impacts on biodiversity.

Download this article



2008 : November 2008 - Fast Moving Fronts : Andrew E. Derocher