Current ice conditions don’t bode well for Beaufort Sea polar bears

Thick spring ice along the shore of the Eastern and Southern Beaufort is bad news for polar bears, especially females emerging from their dens with new cubs. Are those conditions developing now?

Beaufort Sea pressure ridges_Spring 1949 wikipedia sm

Every 10 years or so, since at least the 1960s, nearshore ice gets too thick for ringed seals to maintain their breathing holes and many breeding seals depart the area. This leaves a lot of polar bears without the baby seals they need to consume to get them through the rest of the year (that’s if they don’t (or can’t) leave themselves).

I’ve discussed various aspects of this phenomenon before, with references – see the list at the end of this post.

Sadly, we are on schedule for such conditions to recur – could be this year, could be next. The last time of heavy spring ice was 2004 and previous heavy ice conditions occurred the springs of 1964, 1974 (the worst), 1984, 1992 and 2004. The 2004-2006 event was reportedly almost as bad as the 1974-1976 event.

So, prompted by reports of the heaviest sea ice conditions on the East Coast “in decades” and news that ice on the Great Lakes is, for mid-April, the worst it’s been since records began, I took a close look at ice thickness charts for the Arctic. I’m not suggesting these conditions are necessarily related to Beaufort ice, just that they got me thinking.

Here’s a screencap of the US Navy ice thickness animation chart for yesterday [from WUWT Sea Ice Page]

Figure 1. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 18, 2014. Look at thick ice (yellow, 3.5-4.0 meters thick) spreading along the north coast of Alaska. See the 30 day animation here.

Figure 1. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 18, 2014. Look at thick ice (yellow, 3.5-4.0 meters thick) spreading along the north coast of Alaska. See the 30 day animation here.

Below is a similar image from about the same time last year, with the Southeast Beaufort Sea marked.

Figure 2. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 13, 2013. Southeastern Beaufort marked.

Figure 2. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 13, 2013. Southeastern Beaufort marked.

I don’t think this bodes well for Beaufort bears but we’ll have to wait and see if there are any reports of starving bears bit later this spring and summer. Sea ice charts aren’t a guarantee that this heavy spring ice phenomenon is developing in the Beaufort, but they could be a warning.

Below are archived ice thickness charts from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) for some previous years when Beaufort bears had trouble, especially 2004-2006, with which I compare this year’s conditions. [h/t Steve Goddard for alerting me to this resource]

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Polar bears move around as sea ice habitat changes – this is what resilience looks like

Oddly, it seems some people expect polar bears to sit around and suffer (or die) when local conditions deteriorate, rather than move elsewhere.

PolarBear_2008_USGS

While there are perhaps a few places where moving is not really an option over the short term, over the long term (more than one season) polar bears are free to shift to another locale if ice conditions change (either too much ice or too little).

An announcement by the WWF last week (10 April) caught my eye, as it talked about bears moving from one area to another because of changing ice conditions — as if this was surprising, extraordinary and newsworthy. That said, at least they weren’t suggesting the bears are all going to die because of declining ice, which is a huge improvement.

See what you think of this part of the press release (below), in the context of what we know about the movement of bears between regions:

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: March map

Here is the March 2014 follow-up to my post on the July 2013 track map for female polar bears being followed by satellite in the Beaufort Sea by the US Geological Survey (USGS) – “Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice.”

See that post for methods and other background on this topic, and some track maps from 2012 (also available at the USGS website here).

The USGS track map March 2014 is copied below (Fig. 1).

Compare this to February’s map (Fig. 2) – you’ll be surprised at how little has changed!

Figure 1. Movements of 5 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of March, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 5 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters. Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end March), while the other end of the string is their position in early March. These are the same 5 females that were present in January. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. From original caption: “Movements of 5 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of March, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 5 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters.” Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end March), while the other end of the string is their position in early March. These are the same 5 females that were present in January. Click to enlarge.

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Amstrup grasps at straws to defend his polar-bears-are-doomed computer model

Polar bear activist Steven Amstrup made an astonishing statement in an interview earlier this week — he insisted that the current rate of warming in the Arctic is greater than anything polar bears have lived through before. He also said that optimistic comments on the future of polar bears made by geneticist Matt Cronin a few weeks ago were “incautious” and “misleading.”

Polar bear cubs in den wikipedia

Previously, I described how a new paper by Cronin and colleagues confirmed that genetic evidence indicates polar bears have been around long enough to have survived several past Interglacial periods that were warmer than today (and therefore, would have had virtually no summer ice). Cronin, not unreasonably, had some critical things to say about computer modeled predictions that polar bears could not survive in an Arctic without summer sea ice.

On Monday, the Anchorage Daily News gave Amstrup a forum to rebuke Cronin for his comments. A similar story was also carried by the Washington Post. [In the same ADN article, geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist, offered an outdated argument against future polar bear survival that I’ll deal with later]

Today, I’ll address Amstrup’s ridiculous assertion that the current rate of warming, attributed by him primarily to human activities rather than natural variation, is something polar bears have never experienced in their evolutionary history (a period of more than 400,000 years!).

Let’s start with the offending portion of the news item (published March 31, 2014):

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Oil money provided the foundation of polar bear research, now its “greenwash”

Much of the polar bear research in Canada and American Arctic in the 1970s-1980s was funded by oil and gas companies, because it was the right thing to do (and governments required it). Now, Greenpeace says providing such money is just oil company marketing, meant to make them look good.

Stirling et al 1993_oil acknowledgement

Stirling et al. 1993, oil funding acknowledgement for work in the Eastern Beaufort Sea.

Oil money helped fund the Ph.D. research of polar bear biologist and Polar Bears International spokesperson Steven Amstrup (Amstrup and Durner 1995), and made possible a number of other critical research projects in the early days of polar bear research that might not have been possible otherwise (Stirling et al. 1993; Stirling and Lunn 1997).

Yesterday, several media reports announced that ExxonMobil had advertised for a job counting polar bears in the Kara Sea (where very little research has been done), but a Greenpeace spokesperson called this an “obvious greenwash.

Have a look at the media reports and the oil funding acknowledgements from polar bear research papers (“References”) and see what you think.

Courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

Courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.

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Southern Beaufort polar bear ‘decline’ & reduced cub survival touted in 2008 was invalid, PBSG now admits

It is now clear that the phenomenon of bears moving across Southern Beaufort Seapbsg logo subpopulation boundaries compromised the US decision to list polar bears as ‘threatened’ and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) knows that was the case.

As I pointed out last week, the PBSG has admitted in their 2013 status table update (pdf here) that bears move around so much between the Chukchi Sea (CS), the Southern Beaufort (SB), and the Northern Beaufort (NB) subpopulations that major changes in the boundaries of the SB subpopulation are necessary (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. From the paper by Amstrup and colleagues (2005) describing the effect that movement of bears across subpopulation boundaries has on setting harvest quotas – and population estimates. Southern Beaufort boundary is solid red, Chukchi Sea is dashed yellow and Northern Beaufort is dotted light blue. “Point Barrow” is Barrow, AK (well inside the SB boundary). Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. From the paper by Amstrup and colleagues (2005) describing the effect that movement of bears across subpopulation boundaries has on setting harvest quotas and population estimates. Southern Beaufort (SB) boundary is solid red, Chukchi Sea (CS) is dashed yellow and Northern Beaufort (NB) is dotted light blue. “Point Barrow” is Barrow, AK (well inside the SB boundary). Click to enlarge.

Well, that’s not really news — changes to the SB boundaries were promised by the PBSG back in 2009 (Obbard et al. 2010), based on research by Steven Amstrup and colleagues published in 2001 and 2005. But now, in an astonishing admission, the PBSG have acknowledged that the last population survey for the SB (Regehr, Amstrup and Stirling, 2006), which appeared to register a decline in population size and reduced cub survival over time, did not take known movements of bears into account as it should have done.

In other words, that 2006 study almost certainly did not indicate bears dying due to reduced summer sea ice in the SB, as biologists said at the time — and which they presented as evidence that polar bears should be listed by the ESA as ‘threatened’ — but reflected capture of bears that were never part of the SB subpopulation and so moved out of the region.

As the PBSG said about the 2006 estimate:

“…it is important to note that there is the potential for un-modeled spatial heterogeneity in mark-recapture sampling that could bias survival and abundance estimates.” [my emphasis]

Spatial heterogeneity” means that the sampled bears could have come from more than one population, a possibility which violates a critical requirement of the statistics used to generate the population and survival estimates. “Un-modeled” means that the ‘movement of bears’ problem was not factored into the mathematical models that generated the 2006 population size and survival estimates as it should have been.

Ecologist Jim Steele pointed some of this out in his book and his guest post last year, so it’s not news that this was done.

What’s shocking is that the PBSG have now admitted that the ‘movement of bears’ issue essentially invalidates the 2006 population estimate and the much-touted ‘reduced survival of cubs.’ The reduced survival of cubs data from that SB study was a critical component of the argument that US bears were already being negatively impacted by global warming and thus, should be listed as ‘threatened’ under the ESA (US Fish & Wildlife Service 2008).

Since the population decline and reduced survival is now acknowledged to be unfounded — and perhaps deliberately so — I ask you this: will a new SB survey — soon to be released by the same lead author (Eric Regehr) — undo the broken trust in US and PBSG polar bear biologists? Continue reading

Polar bear status changes in 2013 deconstructed, with a map to the good news

You can’t figure out what’s going on with status updates from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) without deconstructing the spin and the 2013 update is no exception. Here’s my travel guide, with a map, to the good news.

Polar Bear Subpopulations 19_2013 updates_March 20 2014_sm

I’ve finally had a chance to go through all of the details provided with the 2013 PBSG status table (pdf here). It’s just about all good news, once you wade through the spin. Numbers aside, out of the 13 populations for which some kind of data exist, five populations are now classified by the PBSG as ‘stable’ (two more than 2009), one is still increasing, and three have been upgraded from ‘declining’ to ‘data deficient’ (I explain below why this is a promotion).

That leaves four that are still considered ‘declining’- two of those judgments are based primarily on concerns of overhunting, and one is based on a statistically insignificant decline that may not be valid and is being re-assessed (and really should have been upgraded to ‘data deficient’). That leaves only one population – Western Hudson Bay – where PBSG biologists tenaciously blame global warming for all changes to polar bear biology, and even then, the data supporting that conclusion is still not available.

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