Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

Largest polar bear gathering in world
Does climate change exist?
Obama: Focus on jobs, not climate change

"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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT