Category Archives: Life History

Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: June 2014 map

Here is the June 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 for June 2004 is copied below (Fig. 1).

Compare this to May’s map (Fig. 2) – the 20 bears from last month are down to 14, and all seven of the bears outfitted with glue-on satellite transmitters in April [either males or subadult animals] have either moved out of the area or their tags have fallen off or stopped transmitting. This means that all of the bears shown on the June map below are females with satellite radio collars.
Continue reading

Barents Sea polar bear cubs – new data for 2014 made to sound ominous

Last week, Damian Carrington (May 28, 2014) at The Guardian offered a scary-sounding polar bear story, based on the work of Jon Aars and colleagues from the Norwegian Polar Institute (Fewer polar bear cubs are being born in the Arctic islands, survey finds). As often is the case however, once you see the scientific data, you will sleep better.

[Dr Aars also gave a radio interview with CBC Canada (May 29): "Is climate change the cause of lower polar bear birth rates in Norway?"; audio available]

[Update June 24, 2014 — see below]

Female polar bear with cubs. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/AP)

Female polar bear with cubs. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Continue reading

Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – more bears added to the April 2014 map

Polar bears were tagged in 2013 and 2014 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. Seventeen of these bears have satellite collar transmitters and 7 of these bears have glue-on satellite transmitters” say the folks at the USGS Alaska Science Center.

I guess that’s why the April map was late getting posted.

Polar bear ear tag_USFWS_PolarBearNews2010

Continue reading

Polar bear habitat update – ice coverage at the beginning of this year’s critical feeding period

Polar bears are all out on the sea ice at this time of year, feeding on new-born seal pups. Here’s a look at what the ice conditions are like at this critical time.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Alaska Katovik Regehr photo_April 29, 2005_sm labeled

end April extent NSIDC May 4

The ice extent is still well within two standard deviations from the 1981-2010 average, which indicates no deviation from natural variation, as the graph (below) for May 1, 2014 from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) shows.

Sea ice extent 2014 May 1_NSIDC_graph

Between the official spring maximum (according to the NSIDC ) on March 21, with a total extent of 14.8 million km2, the ice slowly retreated in some regions and increased in others, while most regions remained pretty much the same. This is an important reminder that the Arctic as a whole is not a homogeneous region but one with marked regional variation.

As has been noted elsewhere (Sunshine Hours), ice in the Greenland Sea (habitat of ‘East Greenland’ bears) and the Barents Sea both increased in extent over this period. Bering Sea ice (habitat of southern ‘Chukchi Sea’ bears) declined markedly but Baffin Bay/Gulf of St. Lawrence ice (habitat of ‘Davis Strait’ bears) declined much less, as NOAA’s MASIE maps copied below show very well.

Continue reading

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]

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

Barents Sea polar bear condition varies with AMO and spring sea ice conditions

Fig. 1. NSIDC sea ice extent at March 8, 2014 (a "MASIE" product), with labels added. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. NSIDC sea ice extent at March 8, 2014 (a “MASIE” product), with labels added. Click to enlarge.

In its end of February report, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) noted that Barents Sea ice was below average for this time of year (see Fig. 1 above, and Fig. 5 below) but suggested this was primarily due to natural variation driven by the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO):

“The Barents Sea has experienced consistently low extents, particularly in winter, and this year has been no different. While the Barents and Kara seas normally have close to 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) of ice in February, recent years have seen 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) of ice extent or lower. This year, the Kara Sea is near average, but the Barents Sea remains low (Figure 4a). Unlike other regions in the Arctic, longer records of Barents Sea ice extent exist from records of fishing, whaling, and other activities. A recent paper (Miles et al., 2013 [2014, now in print]) examined these records, along with paleoproxy data, to examine extent over the past four hundred years. They found a 60- to 90-year cycle in Barents and Greenland seas ice extent related to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO); the AMO is a basin-wide cycle of sea surface temperature variability similar to the El Niño and La Niña cycles in the Pacific, but varying over much longer periods. This research shows that in addition to the warming trend in the Arctic, some sea ice regions are likely also responding to natural climate variability.” [my bold]

The paper they cite (Miles et al. 2014, discussed elsewhere in December 2013 here) described the AMO this way:

“The AMO is a coherent pattern of basin-wide sea surface temperature (SST) variations with a period of roughly 60–90 years. ..Paleoenvironmental studies suggest that the AMO has persisted through previous centuries [Gray et al., 2004] and even millennia [Knudsen et al., 2011].”

Note that Miles and colleagues were looking at ice records on or around the sea ice maximum in winter/spring.

The Polar Bear Twist: Norwegian biologists Jon Aars and Magnus Andersen, who I’ve discussed before, have pointed out that the condition of polar bear males and females around Svalbard (Fig. 2) they examined over the last 20 years varied with the AMO and sea ice levels in spring and early summer. [research results posted at the website for Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ), Norwegian Polar Institute].

Figure 1. The Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation, courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group. "Svalbard" is the largest archipelago, in the eastern portion.

Figure 2. The Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation boundaries, courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group. Svalbard is the largest archipelago, closest to the East Greenland Sea.

That makes a lot of sense to me, given that spring/early summer is the most critical feeding season for polar bears because it’s when fat young seals are most easily available.

It also makes sense to me that you may need a record hundreds of years long to understand the natural variability of Arctic Sea ice in its various regions. Recall that natural variation, not global warming, is now being used to explain the large variation in annual sea ice cover in the Bering Sea (home to Chukchi Sea polar bears). Continue reading

Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: February map

Here is the February 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 February 2014 is copied below (Fig. 1).

Continue reading

Foxe Basin aerial survey – a watershed moment for polar bear research, Part 1

While researching the population status of Foxe Basin polar bears I came across an issue that seems to have garnered relatively little attention outside the polar bear community – Inuit objections to the handling of polar bears during mark-recapture surveys and the effect of this on polar bear research in Canada.

 Figure 1. US Fish and Wildlife biologists handling a polar bear in the southern Beaufort during a fall survey, October 24, 2001. Steve Amstrup photo.


Figure 1. US Fish and Wildlife biologists handling a polar bear in the southern Beaufort during a fall survey, October 24, 2001. Steve Amstrup photo.

Foxe Basin is a large polar bear subpopulation region that encompasses the northern portion Hudson Bay into the area west of Baffin Island, see map below (courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group).

FoxeBasin_PBSG website_Oct 2013Mark-recapture research methods routinely used by polar bear biologists became especially contentious in Foxe Basin during a population study initiated in 2007/2008, with Inuit residents voicing objections and biologists defending its practice. The following year, the mark-recapture effort was halted and an aerial survey took its place.

The aerial survey has been completed and a report on it was released in 2012 (Stapleton et al. 2012; see previous post for results) but we’ve heard very little about what happened to that mark-recapture study and why the Government of Nunavut pulled the plug on it. I plan to change that with the next couple of posts.

I’m not claiming to understand the nuances of the story because I’m only going by available documents. However, I think it’s important to shine some light on this issue since it has clearly changed the shape of polar bear research in Canada.
Continue reading

Foxe Basin polar bear status – another stable population

Foxe Basin_PBSG

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulation regions defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group, Foxe Basin marked.

Foxe Basin is a large subpopulation region (Fig. 1), with a total area of 1.18 million square km (Vongraven and Peacock 2011). It comprises Northern Hudson Bay and western Hudson Strait, and the area between western Baffin Island and eastern Melville Peninsula, with a large island (Southampton Island) in the middle (Figs. 2 and 3).

Figure 1. Foxe Basin polar bears subpopulation region, courtesy IUCN PBSG

Figure 1. Foxe Basin polar bears subpopulation region, courtesy IUCN PBSG

Continue reading