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Plastic ice for the polar bears?

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 7:30 AM EST, Fri February 22, 2013
A polar bear approaches the boat of oceanographer Eric Brossier in the Canadian Arctic.
A polar bear approaches the boat of oceanographer Eric Brossier in the Canadian Arctic.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Sutter: A researcher and I hosted a live chat about how we can save polar bears
  • Sutter: Some of the readers asked about creating plastic islands to replace melting ice
  • The scientist said "It's like trying to grow a forest in a bunch of Styrofoam chips"
  • Sutter: A recent paper suggests we may need to air-drop food on struggling bears

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

(CNN) -- I love being reminded I'm totally unnecessary.

On Thursday, I hosted tried to host a live video chat with Andrew Derocher, a polar bear researcher and professor at the University of Alberta. The goal was to answer a few of the many, many questions readers asked about my story this week on a plan to air-drop food on struggling polar bears in the Arctic.

A few minutes into the chat on Spreecast, however, my Wi-Fi connection dropped out and I disappeared from the screen, leaving Derocher to fend for himself.

He's a rock star -- so of course he barely missed a beat.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

"I can see myself here on air, but I can't see John right now," the scientist said, calm, cool and collected. "I guess if people type in questions we can continue on."

I popped back on screen soon, but it wouldn't have mattered one way or the other. Derocher did a great job tackling a range of questions about his polar bear plans, which he outlined in a recent paper for the journal Conservation Letters.

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The most interesting question was along these lines: Since the polar bear's sea-ice habitat is melting, why don't we just engineer a habitat for them? Some of you suggested a series of plastic islands that would help polar bears reach seals (their food) out in the middle of the ocean. Others suggested recycling plastics for this purpose.

"The issue of creating some sort of platform in the Arctic is an interesting sort of idea," Derocher said on video from Canada (which, apparently, has better Internet connections than our offices in New York). "The challenge is really one of scale. When you look at the size of a polar bear's home range -- the size they wander over in a year -- you're basically talking (about) an area that's two-thirds the size of Texas. So these are huge areas. And if you go around the circumpolar Arctic, there's so much habitat that would have to be put in place that it's basically untenable in terms of a spacial scale."

The other issue: Plastic doesn't support life the way ice does.

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"You have to think about sea ice more akin to soil in a terrestrial ecosystem," he said.

He topped off the explanation with a stellar analogy:

"It's like trying to grow a forest in a bunch of Styrofoam chips."

So, the bottom line on that: No sea ice, no polar bears.

You can watch the whole Spreecast here (sorry for the train wreck of technical issues at the beginning of the video).

My other favorite thread of conversation on this topic concerned the value of a polar bear life versus a human life. Some of you asked why we would consider air-lifting polar bear food to the Arctic when there are so many poor and starving people on our planet today.

"We're going to have a lot more poor and starving people if we don't deal with the climate change issue in a realistic fashion," Derocher said. "Polar bears are telling us we're living too heavily on this planet and we're extracting too many resources and putting our waste into the atmosphere. ... I view the problems the polar bears are going to be facing largely as a precursor to the sorts of problems that humans are going to be facing."

If you've got more questions, keep 'em coming. I'll do my best to find a stable enough Internet connection -- and an answer.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

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