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Lost interview: Alaska scientist described how he discovered 'drowned polar bears'

Tony Hopfinger

In July 2007, I sat down with wildlife biologist Charles Monnett and a spokesperson for the then-Minerals Management Service, the federal regulator of offshore oil development. Monnett -- who is now in trouble with MMS' successor, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement -- had led the team of federal scientists who had spotted apparently dead polar bears floating in the Arctic Ocean in fall 2004, the causalities, some would later argue, of a warming climate. Or perhaps just a brutal storm.

That revelation, which was published in a journal at the time, galvanized environmentalists, who had long been saying the Arctic was melting. There was no ice for the bears, and now it seemed they had to swim farther than ever before. That was the implication of Monnett's and his colleagues' work at MMS.

I wanted to interview the man who had made the polar bear an international symbol of global warming. But the federal agency he worked for, which at the time was defending Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic, was wary of me asking questions of their scientist. And Monnett himself was paranoid that he would get in trouble by talking to me. As is today, Royal Dutch Shell was facing environmental opposition to its drilling plans for the Arctic. MMS was caught in the middle. And the survival of the polar bear -- now listed as a threatened species -- was at the center of the debate. Monnett seemed to indicate that he was already on thin ice as a result of his research. Thus, an MMS spokeswoman was there to monitor my questioning of Monnett. That's how it seemed, at least.

Here are some selected transcripts from my July 2007 interview with Dr. Monnet:

Bowhead whale (polar bear) survey

It is a whale survey primarily. Polar bears are secondary. MMS started the bowhead survey in 1979 under a contract and, then, in 1987, the study became in-house and executed by MMS staff entirely. I went on my first survey in 1999. ... The survey is conducted out of Deadhorse. We're focused on the migration of bowhead whales. There is a lot of research on figuring out why those whales are attracted to certain areas and what oceanic factors would factor when they may be there. ... If Shell is allowed to go forward with its plans, then there will be a lot of people who will want to know what we see as the month of September develops -- where the whales are as relative to the drilling and such. 

Monnett takes over the MMS survey

In 2004, we did a transition in leadership. (The person previously managing the annual bowhead survey retired; Monnett took over as project manager.) I was looking at the (past) data, and I was thinking about it in a different way. It was becoming really clear to us that we were seeing fairly great changes in the distribution of the ice. 2004, in particular, was a dramatic record year for the retreat of ice. And I think the global warming debate was much less mature than it is now (in 2007). The preponderance of evidence is that it is occurring too fast to be part of a natural cycle, as (might have been thought) in the past. Humans are involved to some extent.

White specs on the sea

Where in the past we usually would have encountered a fair amount of ice, there wasn't much (in 2004). We showed up and it was wide open. We were flying 100 miles -- 200 miles, in some cases -- over the Beaufort in early September, and it was wide open. It was unprecedented. We would arrive for the retreat of the ice in the past and there would be bears going out on the ice, and eventually you would go out a ways and it would open up some. But it was wide open in 2004. We were impressed with that. We had a very nice stretch of weather, which we don't always get, so we had good-flying weather.

The Beaufort was so flat you could see the reflection of the airplane. In early September, we saw bears swimming. We're flying along, with this remarkable weather. ... They look so comfortable in the water when you see them. We were open to the idea that they probably could survive, they can swim a long distance. ... We then started seeing all these bears swimming around the barrier islands, and a fair number offshore. ...

We are up there looking at whales, and at the same time looking at polar bears. The bears are just white objects. When there is no ice out there, it could be a beluga or a polar bear. When it's in close to shore, chances are it's a polar bear. They drift along on their belly like a dog. ... The difference that year was we were seeing a lot of bears. We moved over to another area to survey.

There was a storm that shut us down. We went back on our next rotation a couple weeks later and saw a white object in the water that looked weird and realized it was a drowned bear.

We saw another one on another flight. Another one on another flight. And over a period of several days -- week -- there's scattered (dead) bears. A couple were pretty close to Kaktovik, another one was pretty far out. And we saw one that was really bloated. You could see it for miles. ... We took a couple photos, but they were unrecognizable. ...

These kinds of things you don't know the significance until later.

Back in the office, the 2004 data is examined

We immediately got into the (historic) database and saw two things: First, swimming bears (were) seen (in past years), but only one or two a year, and we had seen many, many more. We also realized that there hadn't been any observations of dead bears (floating far out at sea). This made this seem unique. In addition, that we saw four of them, we were only sampling like 10 percent of the area at the time. ...

We came to the realization that swimming in calm water is one thing. Swimming in storms is another...

We survey from Barrow to Canada. By the time we (saw the dead bears), it was about two weeks after the storm. You see a ton of bears swimming, a couple days later a storm comes through; a week later there were a bunch of (dead bears).

Did the polar bears really drown?

You can never say for sure -- a scientist can never say for sure anything. But it seems pretty obvious. ... Somebody said, 'Well, maybe the Natives shot them.' That's ridiculous. The Natives aren't going to shoot a bunch of bears and scatter them all over the ocean. ... As there is more open water and bears crowded on what ice there is, there is potential for large numbers of bears to be dumped into the ocean (when there is a large storm, as happened in 2004).

The survey results are published in late 2004

Editor: At a scientific meeting in late 2004, Monnett and his team's study detailing their observations of the apparently drowned polar bears was presented. At around the same time, The Wall Street Journal came out with a story that would become a rallying call for those who believe in climate change.

MONNETT: By the time we attended the meeting, the paper was already submitted to a journal. It probably had been reviewed by that point. By the time we went to the meeting, most of the top polar bear researchers were aware of our work and were like, 'Get this out as fast as you can. This is important information.' ...

I've been the messenger more than once. But I haven't been shot. Yet. ...

Even though we did quite a bit of work, MMS has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that we know anything about polar bears. But we have all this data. ... We have the longest-running survey. We're doing a lot of other people's jobs.

We are the ones that are permitting the oil development, and we have an interest in making sure nothing untoward happens.

Contact Tony Hopfinger at editor(at)alaskadispatch.com.