Monday, February 05, 2007

It's All About Emotion-Based Journalism

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Ann Althouse thinks that scientists are trying to manipulate our emotions by showing us photographs of polar bears on melting ice floes. She posts this photograph from a New York Times article and asks:

"... How many people look at that picture and think the polar bears were living on some ice and it melted around them and now they are stuck?"

The answer to that depends on how many people, like Ann, are so out of touch that they have not read or heard that scientists are finding polar bears drowned because they are being forced to swim greater distances to reach ice floes, as a result of global warming causing the Arctic ice shelf to melt. So, not knowing this is happening, these people, of whom Ann is one, interpret a photograph like the one above to mean that the polar bears climbed onto a massive sheet of ice and it melted before their very eyes in a matter of minutes, dumping them into the water.

But wait. Ann has heard that polar bears are drowning. She has read at least some of the articles that explain why polar bears are drowning, because she links to one such article. Let's take a look at what the article says (I have bolded particularly germane passages):

SCIENTISTS have for the first time found evidence that polar bears are drowning because climate change is melting the Arctic ice shelf.

The researchers were startled to find bears having to swim up to 60 miles across open sea to find food. They are being forced into the long voyages because the ice floes from which they feed are melting, becoming smaller and drifting farther apart.

Although polar bears are strong swimmers, they are adapted for swimming close to the shore.
Their sea journeys leave them them vulnerable to exhaustion, hypothermia or being swamped by waves.

According to the new research, four bear carcases were found floating in one month in a single patch of sea off the north coast of Alaska, where average summer temperatures have increased by 2-3C degrees since 1950s.

The scientists believe such drownings are becoming widespread across the Arctic, an inevitable consequence of the doubling in the past 20 years of the proportion of polar bears having to swim in open seas.

“Mortalities due to offshore swimming may be a relatively important and unaccounted source of natural mortality given the energetic demands placed on individual bears engaged in long-distance swimming,” says the research led by Dr Charles Monnett, marine ecologist at the American government’s Minerals Management Service. “Drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice continues.”
Polar bears live on ice all year round and use it as a platform from which to hunt food and rear their young. They hunt near the edge, where the ice is thinnest, catching seals when they make holes in the ice to breath. They typically eat one seal every four or five days and a single bear can consume 100lb of blubber at one sitting.

As the ice pack retreats north in the summer between June and October, the bears must travel between ice floes to continue hunting in areas such as the shallow water of the continental shelf off the Alaskan coast — one of the most food-rich areas in the Arctic.

However, last summer the ice cap receded about 200 miles further north than the average of two decades ago, forcing the bears to undertake far longer voyages between floes.

“We know short swims up to 15 miles are no problem, and we know that one or two may have swum up to 100 miles. But that is the extent of their ability, and if they are trying to make such a long swim and they encounter rough seas they could get into trouble,” said Steven Amstrup, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS.

The new study, carried out in part of the Beaufort Sea, shows that between 1986 and 2005 just 4% of the bears spotted off the north coast of Alaska were swimming in open waters. Not a single drowning had been documented in the area.

However, last September, when the ice cap had retreated a record 160 miles north of Alaska, 51 bears were spotted, of which 20% were seen in the open sea, swimming as far as 60 miles off shore.

The researchers returned to the vicinity a few days later after a fierce storm and found four dead bears floating in the water. “We estimate that of the order of 40 bears may have been swimming and that many of those probably drowned as a result of rough seas caused by high winds,” said the report.

So, as we can see, polar bears are not "living on" ice floes that are melting around them. They are finding it harder to catch seals (which is what they eat) from ice floes that are near the shore because over a period of many years the ice floes have been melting, as a result of global warming. Thus the bears are being forced to swim farther and farther from shore to find their food, which is not how their bodies and physical systems are meant to operate. They are strong swimmers, but they can only swim so far before they tire and drown, especially in rough seas, and they are having to swim farther and farther because the ice floes continue to melt and they have to swim far from shore to find a floe they can stand on.

Normally, I would not go to such lengths to explain what is, after all, a very, very simple concept to understand. But Ann does not seem to understand it:

I realize a polar bear can drown... if, say, it's exhausted and swimming over 50 miles. But basically, these things can swim 15 miles easily, at a speed of 6 miles an hour, and they use the edge of an ice floe as a platform from which to hunt. Where's the photograph of the bear chomping down on a cute baby seal?

Talk about missing the point. Or deliberately ignoring the point, more likely, since Ann is an attorney and thus presumably has at least an average IQ, if not above average. Do you see what she's done? She has left out everything in the article about the ice floes melting, about polar bears no longer being able to catch food from ice shelves close to shore, about having to swim much, much farther than 15 miles to get their food! She writes, "I realize a polar bear can drown ... if, say, it's exhausted and swimming over 50 miles" -- but she leaves out the fact that polar bears ARE swimming over 50 miles and getting exhausted much more frequently. A polar bear "can" drown, "if" it's exhausted and swimming over 50 miles -- as if these are hypothetical situations that never or rarely occur. Then she writes, "... these things can swim 15 miles easily..." -- as if anyone has said they can't -- and again omitting the crucial fact that they are swimming distances much, much greater than 15 miles, routinely, to find food -- distances they are not meant to swim and are not strong enough to swim on any regular basis. "...and they use the edge of an ice floe as a platform from which to hunt," she continues -- but does not insert the words "close to shore" between "ice floe" and "as a platform." And in this way she completely distorts the meaning of the article -- turning it from a piece about the way global warming is threatening the continued existence of an entire species to some kind of sentimental sidebar showing favoritism to polar bears falling off melting ice and not giving equal time to the seals that the polar bears eat.

"And no, I'm not denying that there's global warming..." Ann tells us -- even as she spends an entire post doing just that.

1 comment:

Njae said...

I agree! I thought that the ice melted around those poor polar bears as well. I'm very offended that they would imply such a falsehood.