Monday, August 25, 2008

#8 First Polar Bear Sighting

Polar Bear Sighting

Saturday, 2008-08-23

On night watch, after ten days at sea, we finally saw our first polar bear. On last year’s mapping cruise, which took place at roughly the same time, the science crew began seeing polar bears almost right away. By the end of their 30-day cruise they had spotted 21 of them. Given the even thinner ice cover where we are mapping, we are unlikely to see as many this year.

Yesterday’s New York Times “Evening Digest”* reported that NOAA observers have spotted ten polar bears, “an unusually large number” swimming off the Alaska coast. Some were “heading for shore, some heading for the retreating ice in the Chukchi Sea”, which is where we spent much of our first week of mapping. Tookaq reports that folks back home in Barrow have seen 14 polar bears in town, mostly on land, another sign that the polar bears are struggling with the lack of ice.

As you can see from the photos, the bear we saw was on thick multi-year ice, with intermittent open water as well as melt pools. The melt pools are the bright aquamarine color in the lower left of the picture below.

The polar bear population in the Chukchi Sea region is one 20 such populations identified in the circumpolar Arctic. According to Stirling and Taylor, the populations are divided geographically by ice pattern boundaries and possess slight genetic differences from each other. It takes some 24 years for polar bear populations to double, and scientists are uncertain how diminishing ice cover in summer will affect bears’ reproduction. The IUCN has estimated that “If climatic trends continue polar bears may be extirpated from most of their range within 100 years.” In 2006 IUCN upgraded the polar bear to its Red List of species threatened with extinction, citing climate change as the main reason for the move, see

I have posted some links to US steps identifying the polar bear as an endangered species on the right hand side of my blog, but none to the relevant international agreements. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (ACPB) requires that the five contracting arctic states shall “take appropriate action to protect the ecosystems of which polar bears are a part, with special attention to habitat components such as denning and feeding sites and migration patterns, and shall manage polar bear populations in accordance with sound conservation practices based on the best available scientific data.” What comprises an ecosystem, and how you define a habitat, are not questions easily answered by science, but the general tone of the treaty is one of cooperation based on the best available science. Just how reliant policy makers and lawyers are on scientists to give effect to the policies and laws they draft is being made abundantly clear to me on this trip, and is a theme to which I will return in later blogs and in class.

Other relevant agreements include the 1973 Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species, which included polar bears on its original listing of protected species (Annex II), obligating states to regulate trade in listed species through export permitting. Bilateral agreements cover two other bear populations: a 2000 treaty between the US and Russia regarding the Alaska-Chukotka population and a 1999 agreement between Alaska’s Inupiat and Canada’s Inuvialuit regarding the southern Beaufort region population. For those of you interested in reading more on how other agreements such as the Climate Change Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity may be relevant to protecting the polar bear, Nigel Bankes at the University of Calgary Law Faculty, on whose work I gratefully draw above, is doing interesting work in this regard.

* The NYT Digest, “Stars and Stripes” (a news digest for armed forces serving overseas), and your emails are our only source of news right now, since we are out of Internet range. David Hassilev, our communications guru, obtains the larger files by iridium phone and distributes them via the ship’s intra-net. This sparse coverage of the Olympics, and of VP picks, is fine with us for now. There is a blissful suspension in not being plugged in around the clock to the world’s news, but it is still good to have some sense of what’s going on out there. We should pick up Internet access again in about a week.

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.