2009 Science, Technology and Environment

Leslie Holland-Bartels and the International Polar Bear Science Team

Determined a link between climate change and probable elimination of the polar bear in the next 45 to 75 years, and established a scientific process that will investigate other physical and societal changes.

The inclusion of polar bears on the endangered species list in 2008 was about much more than saving Alaska’s precious wildlife for Dr. Leslie Holland-Bartels and her team. It was about using cutting-edge technology to accurately foretell the effects of climate change before they come to pass.

Working around-the-clock, seven days a week over six months, Holland-Bartels and her international scientific team linked projected temperature and sea ice changes in the Arctic to the probable elimination of polar bears in the next 45 to 75 years. The effort resulted in providing the scientific underpinning needed to inform the addition of polar bears to the endangered species list.

This is the first time that a species has been allowed to be labeled “endangered” before the endangering conditions existed. However, the latest computer-generated models, when used correctly, allow scientists to more accurately predict the effects of global warming than has ever been possible.

“Though this was not a link that any scientist wanted to celebrate, it was science that moved many people, governments and organizations to seriously consider the reality of threats posed by climate change—not just to plants, animals and ecosystems, but to people as well,” said Martha Garcia, who works with Holland-Bartels at the U.S. Geological Survey.

“This was a good example of science informing policy and decision makers,” said USGS’ Robert Doyle.

Making this happen was not easy.

The international team led by Holland-Bartels needed to understand all the elements of the science, utilize current expert work in physical global climate computer modeling and document all of the uncertainties in a way that would inform the public policy debate. They also put all of their materials through a blind peer review vetting process to ensure the best possible work was being presented.

“It was an amazing challenge scientifically. We had to be able to stand up to the scrutiny—and we did,” said Holland-Bartels, the USGS regional executive in Alaska.

The extensive roll-out of the findings involved briefings to Congress and engaging with regional and national managers at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Department on the Interior leadership, White House science advisors, Alaska’s governor and her senior staff, international groups and the media.

While this particular project focused on the polar bear, Holland-Bartels and her team also laid the groundwork for researching the effects of climate change.

“The listing was a major policy milestone but there will be lots of other science coming out of it,” said Anne Kissinger, who serves as Holland-Bartels’ supervisor. “This body of work convinced a very skeptical administration and the biological management community and conservation community to look at how climate change is going to affect our natural resources and our lives.”

“There is no doubt that this science couldn’t have been pulled off without Leslie. She took the challenge and ran with it without hesitation, displayed an amazing amount of management skill and worked at all levels of the organization to make this happen,” said Kissinger.

Garcia observed global climate change is like no other test of modern society.

“The world is conflicted by a compelling need to sustain economies and the realization that byproducts of those economies—greenhouse gasses—are contributing to the warming of our planet,” she said. “Because of the ambitious and innovative efforts of Dr. Holland-Bartels and her team, we now have a solid, transparent and objective understanding of the consequences of climate change.”

The genius of Leslie Holland-Bartels and her team’s research is that they have taken this complex problem, simplified it and made it real for everyday citizens of the world. The average person is not going to read the latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but they will pay attention when they hear that our photogenic friends from the Arctic may be eliminated.

Many scientists, including Dr. Holland-Bartels and the International Polar Bear Science Team, have enhanced our understanding of climate. Few have done more to spur people to act, which is ultimately the key to confronting this generational challenge.