Warming Trends: Climate Threats to Bears, Bugs and Bees, Plus a Giant Kite and an ER Surge

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A polar bear walks on the frozen tundra on the edge of Hudson Bay waiting for the water body to to freeze over in November 2007 outside Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

A polar bear walks on the frozen tundra on the edge of Hudson Bay waiting for the water body to to freeze over in November 2007 outside Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

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SCIENCE

A Slower Freeze Pushes Polar Bears Close to Starvation

The Hudson Bay in northern Canada froze up later than normal this year, delaying polar bears’ hunting season by two to three weeks, a nonprofit polar bear conservation organization found. 

When the ice on the bay is thick enough, polar bears living in the Hudson Bay migrate out onto the ice to hunt for seals. This ends a months-long fasting period which begins in the summer once the ice has thawed, and lasts usually until November. But in 2021, the ice did not form until early December, Polar Bears International reports. The conservation group maintains a polar bear tracker that shows the location of several female polar bears in the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation. 

“Two to three weeks doesn’t sound like a lot but it can be,” said Alysa McCall, a staff scientist with Polar Bears International. “A couple of weeks more of not being able to eat, relying on their own body fat and not being able to find food, meanwhile expending their energy walking around. It really does add up for these bears.”

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Last year marked the second-latest freeze up on record of the Hudson Bay, after 2010. McCall said she expects more late freeze up years as the climate warms.

Polar bears have a fasting threshold of 180 days before they starve to death. Decades ago, bears would usually fast for about 140 to 150 days, McCall said, but this year, they reached about 169 days, pushing closer to that deadly threshold.

“We have a lot more to learn about those limits. But we know where we’re pushing them,” McCall said. “We’re getting them right to the point where their bodies just are not going to be able to handle these really extended fasts.”

SOLUTIONS

A Ship, a Kite and Airplane Parts Bound for America

Centuries ago, ships traversed the ocean powered by nothing but the wind in their sails. This year, wind is making a comeback, partly powering a commercial vessel as it transports goods across the Atlantic.

A giant kite will help drag the French cargo ship Ville de Bordeaux across the Atlantic Ocean as it ferries airplane parts for Airbus between France and the U.S. over the next several months, testing the new technology. The 10,700-square-foot kite, known as the Seawing and developed by the French company Airseas, is fully automated to unfold and adjust to optimize the power of the wind as it flies 1,000 feet in the air. 

The Seawing is a large kite that helps propel a ship through the water. Photo Courtesy of Airseas
The Seawing is a large kite that helps propel a ship through the water. Photo Courtesy of Airseas

The kite can reduce the use of fuel and associated carbon emissions by 20 percent, according to Airseas. 

“It’s very significant in terms of carbon emission saving and very significant in terms of reduction of costs for shipowners, in terms of reduction of fuel,” said Airseas corporate secretary Stéphanie Lesage.

The cost of the Seawing is confidential, she said, but the product pays for itself in an estimated three years. 

Although Lesage expects wind propulsion to eventually reach all vessels sailing in the ocean, it cannot be the only solution for decarbonizing the industry. Sustainable fuels, energy efficient routes and other changes need to be part of the transition from fossil fuels, she said. 

“It’s not wind as used to sail a century ago,” Lesage said, “it’s really, you know, another age.”

SCIENCE

Bugs and the License-Plate Test

Flying insect populations have declined by around 80 percent in some parts of the United Kingdom, preliminary data has shown.

Those findings come from data collected by citizen scientists who submitted photographs of their car license plates showing how many bugs were squashed on the plate’s surface during a trip. Buglife, an insect conservation organization in the U.K. collected data from more than 5,000 participants who submitted photos via the Bugs Matter app from 6,000 trips around the country. 

The group will have more conclusive findings in late March once they have had a chance to sort through all the data, said Paul Hetherington, director of fundraising and communications for Buglife, but preliminary analyses show that the number of squashed bugs has dropped by around 75 to 85 percent compared to baseline data that was collected in 2004 using a similar method. 

“The results are terrifying, really,” Hetherington said.

Insects are declining for several reasons, he said, including habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. Buglife plans to continue collecting this data from car license plates in the U.K. each summer. Once there’s at least five years of data, Hetherington said, the group can start seeing what areas are most in trouble, and what areas are showing improvements in insect populations. 

“If we’ve got a massive decline in flying insects, we’re also going to have a similar decline in most other species, because virtually every other species on the planet is dependent,” Hetherington said. “So everything is going to disappear if we lose our flying insects.” 

SCIENCE

Soaring Heat Boosts ER Visits by the Homeless

People experiencing homelessness were more likely to visit an emergency room during heat waves in San Diego, a new study found.

The study conducted by researchers from the University of California San Diego looked at nearly 25,000 emergency hospital visits by people experiencing homelessness between 2012 and 2019. The researchers say it is the first epidemiological evidence showing how unhoused people are more susceptible to health impacts during heat waves than the broader population.

They found that younger people between the ages of 18 and 44, and elderly people above age 65, were more vulnerable to heat waves than middle aged people. Unhoused people who required psychiatric care while visiting the emergency room were also more at-risk, indicating that mental health conditions also affect vulnerability.

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In San Diego County, average summer temperatures have been trending hotter in the last several decades. The city had the fifth-highest number of unhoused residents in the nation in 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated. 

Senior author Tarik Benmarhnia, an associate professor at UC-San Diego, recommends that cities have concrete plans to care for their unhoused residents during heat waves, targeting the most vulnerable younger and older residents and people with mental health conditions.

“I think each community and each neighborhood should have their own action plan and their own actions towards individuals experiencing homelessness,” Benmarhnia said. “This is not a one size fits all. We can’t address that in a kind of comprehensive way. I think it has to be in relation to existing community-based organizations that are already working with individuals experiencing homelessness.”

CULTURE

Writing, and Driving Home a Message for Kids on Climate

During the school year, Richard Faith drives a school bus. In the summer, the retired general contractor drives a Bookmobile. And in his spare time, he writes children’s books, hoping to teach kids through rhyme and writing not only lessons on honor, perseverance and courage, but also what they need to know about the planet they are inheriting. 

The South Boston native recently published his latest children’s book, Bee Scared, which tells a story about a hive of honeybees working to understand why so many of their fellow bees are disappearing. Faith said he balances the need to alert children about the future they face where declining bee populations threaten food supply, while inspiring the young readers to help find solutions.

His work as a bus and Bookmobile driver puts him alongside children of all ages every day, which helps him know how to walk the line of being honest with kids about the reality of their future, without overwhelming them. 

“I wrote it in a way that it’s not going to frighten them that there’s a problem, but just become aware,” Faith said. “And the earlier they’re aware, the better we’ll be, because they are the future.”