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 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT