Polar bear habitat update – more ice than 2012 when all the bears didn’t die

Overall, the situation is better than many recent years – lower than average but higher than even 2012 and 2007, when all the polar bears didn’t die despite record-low extents for September. In several areas of the Eastern Arctic, sea ice levels continue to run higher than average. There is plenty of ice in the Arctic Basin for polar bears spending the summer under the midnight sun.

masie_all_zoom_v01_2015237_4km

According to NSIDC MASIE (see map above):

2007 at 25 August – 5.2 mkm2
2012 at 25 August – 4.9 mkm2
2015 at 25 August – 5.3 mkm2
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Arctic Basin polar bears – researchers spot fat pregnant female from icebreaker

Researchers in the Arctic Basin yesterday spotted a hugely fat pregnant polar bear female on broken ice over water about 2,500 meters deep. Some people seem to find this surprising but it’s what I discussed last week.

Healy Aug 24 2015 Polar-Bear VI Tim Kenna

Photo above by Tim Kenna from aboard the Coast Guard cutter Healy. Researchers are in the area as part of the TRACES of Change in the Arctic” program. Another perspective on the bear and the location it was spotted on 24 August 2015 below, as well as some background on Arctic Basin bears.
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In 1999, climate change apparently threatened Western Hudson Bay polar bears

Now, not so much. Here is a 16- year old CBC TV special on Churchill polar bears – listen to Ian Stirling and reporter Eve Savory use the early breakup of sea ice on Hudson Bay in 1999 to hype the alarm about Western Hudson Bay polar bears. Watch Stirling in action darting and measuring bears and bemoaning the good old days of the 1980s, claiming the “bears are sending a signal from the ecosystem.

Watch this archived copy of “The Shrinking Bears of Hudson Bay and compare his claims to what has actually happened in the 16 years since then. It runs just over 15 minutes.

Climate change threatens polar bears 2_CBC 1999

“Just as the ice is shrinking in Hudson Bay, so are its polar bears. Climate change has shortened the season for winter ice, a crucial period for the bears to feast on seals and build up their fat reserves. And so, over the 18 years that wildlife biologist Ian Stirling has been studying them, the polar bears have become skinnier and their offspring fewer. In this 1999 report for CBC-TV’s The National, Stirling says once their habitat is gone, there’s nowhere else the Hudson Bay polar bears can go.” [my bold – see notes below]

Program: The National [Canadian Broadcasting Company, CBC]
Broadcast Date: Sept. 23, 1999
Duration: 16:39

Stirling has continue to make these claims since 1999, yet no updated evidence has been provided. There is no plausible evidence that the decline of polar bear numbers in Western Hudson Bay was due to sea ice changes caused by human-caused global warming (Crockford 2015) or that continued declines in condition of bears or litter size have  occurred. Note that the latest survey of Western Hudson Bay polar bears found no trend in either breakup or freeze-up dates since 2001 (Lunn et al. 2013) and that the population is now stable.

Ice coverage charts and breakup dates graph below, for context.
UPDATE ADDED – see below
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Summer habitat for most polar bears is either shoreline or sea ice in the Arctic Basin

At this time of year, sea ice extent numbers are meaningless for polar bears.  The extreme low September minimum of 2012 – when masses of polar bears didn’t die – showed rational people that this is true. Even the low 2007 summer extent, which hit earlier in the season than 2012, had little to no negative impact.

Greenland W coast_Female w cubs_2006_Mads Heide-Jorgensen_NOAA sm

In late summer, bears outside the Canadian Archipelago either retreat to shore or stay on the sea ice as it retreats north into the Arctic Basin (see image below, click to enlarge).  Most bears in the Archipelago have ice year round, so life doesn’t change much. This means that it does not matter to polar bears how much area the Arctic Basin ice covers in September – for their needs, 1.0 mkm2 would be plenty.

Sea ice and summer refuges for polar bears_17 Aug 2015

Still, Southern Hudson Bay polar bears had extended hunting opportunities in July this year (whether or not they hunted successfully) and for this date, Hudson Bay had more ice remaining than any year on record. Yes, more than even 1992 but only by a few percent. See charts and maps below.

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Barents Sea polar bear research in the good old days – 1968/69 – with video

Here is some old footage shot in 1968-1969 of four Dutch researchers – none of whom had any experience with large carnivores – sent to study polar bears at Kapp Lee on Edgeøya (eastern Svalbard). It’s in Dutch so I don’t know what they’re saying but given the choice of music (Beatles, “All You Need is Love”) I can guess the message.

Still, the images are kind of cool, it’s interesting to see how research was conducted at the time by inexperienced personnel. FYI, I began my university studies in 1968, I was not much younger than these students at the time.

Overwintering Spitsbergen 1968-1969 [Uploaded to youtube 21 October 2012; length 45:55]

Description: In the winter of 1968-1969 stayed four Dutch students on the island Edgeøya east of Spitsbergen to do research as to polar bears. During that expedition, this film made by Paul van de Bosch and Hans Sweet and exhibited by the NOS on Dutch television in 1969. 

[Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation background here and here]

I found some additional background that I’ve included below, which shows how naive these young men were, although clearly they had enthusiasm. Dutch researcher Piet Oosterveld was one of the original four on the 1968 expedition and according to a recent news report (see below), will accompany a new expedition to study the effects of global warming. Map below is from the Dutch News story cited below. Spoiler alert: in 1987, Oosterveld was attacked by a polar bear and seriously injured, blamed in part on the rapid increase in polar bear numbers due to their protected status.

Dutch expedition route map
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Well-fed polar bears onshore at height of summer easily deterred by noise, CBC reports

From the CBC this morning, we have the report of a female polar bear and her cub paying a visit to an Nunavut campsite near Chesterfield Inlet in northwestern Hudson Bay, which is technically within the boundary of the Foxe Basin polar bear subpopulation.

Maggie Putulik photo, 29 July 2015 Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut.

Maggie Putulik photo, 29 July 2015 Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut.

These are not the desperate bear victims of global warming we have been warned about by polar bear specialists but well-fed curious ursids not averse to an easy meal if there’s one to be had. Such bears are easily deterred by a loud noise. Note this was the second visit by polar bears this Nunavut family had experienced at this location within a three-week period – two other bears had stopped by earlier. Note that ice in this region of Hudson Bay broke up earlier than usual this year yet these bears seem to be in fine condition and can expect the first fall ice of the season (freeze-up) to appear in their neighbourhood, see maps below.
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2nd highest ice coverage for Hudson Bay since 1971 at mid-August – only 1992 higher

Since 1971, there has been no year when there was as much ice left on Hudson Bay as there is this year at August 13th, except 1992 – the year when Mt. Pinatubo seemingly affected Hudson Bay ice levels but not any other region in Eastern Canada or the Beaufort Sea. Odd, that – see the graphs below.

Hudson Bay same week 13 Aug 1971-2015

Doesn’t mean that much to polar bears, since they will mostly be fasting whether they are onshore for the summer or riding the ice – they primarily live off their fat this time of year. Still, the relative ice levels are interesting because it could impact freeze-up dates later this fall, which will influence the bears’ ability to hunt before the winter fast sets in.

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