Norwegian high-Arctic. Photo by Bruce Marcot.
Wildlife biologist Bruce Marcot’s research has led him around the globe, from India to the Congo, from New Zealand to Australia, and from Bolivia to the high Arctic. Among other things, he studies how climate change and other stressors could affect at-risk species. Recently, the Norwegian Polar Institute, part of the Government of Norway's Ministry of Climate and Environment, asked for his assistance with a project related to a species Marcot has a decade of experience with: polar bears.
It started in 2007 when Marcot got a call from U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage. A polar bear science team was organizing and they needed Marcot’s expertise in modeling wildlife population viability. Marcot joined the team, assisted with field work on the Beaufort Sea, and developed and implemented models to analyze the potential impacts of climate change, human activities, and environmental conditions on global populations of polar bears. The team concluded that about two-thirds of the roughly 25,000 polar bears in the world would be at high risk by mid-century, largely because of the melting of Arctic sea ice. They presented their results to the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter in 2008, the polar bear was listed as globally threatened. It was the first time a species had been listed on the basis of expected climate change impact.
In 2010, Marcot and his colleagues published a paper in Nature concluding that the decline of the polar bear could be mitigated only if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced.
Now Marcot is helping the Norwegian Polar Institute with research set in the Norwegian high-Arctic island system of Svalbard that will yield decision support risk-analysis models to assess whether further measures should be introduced to help sustain vulnerable wildlife species such as polar bears, Atlantic walrus, Svalbard reindeer, Arctic fox, ivory gulls, and many other species. Marcot is one of the world’s leading experts in building ecological species models with Bayesian networks—complex diagrams that organize and map out cause-and-effect relationships among key variables and weight their probabilities of affecting each other. Working with local species experts from the institute, he is using these models to evaluate the probabilities of human and climate impacts on these arctic and subarctic habitats and the species that live in them. Results will be used to revise Norwegian governmental regulations on tourism, shipping, recreation, and hunting activities that could affect these fragile ecosystems. Marcot notes that high-latitude changes are an early-warning signal of what may befall our temperate-zone region.