Category Archives: Life History

Tracking polar bears – 3 out of 4 S. Beaufort bears on the ice during September 2015

The shore of Alaska is not very important to Southern Beaufort polar bears – most of them stay on the sea ice during the summer and early fall, where they may or may not continue eating. These results of on-going satellite tracking studies by USGS1 confirm results of previous studies.

Tranquilized_pb570_S Beaufort March 2014_USGS

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Beaufort Sea swimming polar bears far from land but not very far from sea ice

Recent accounts of an encounter with a curious polar bear female and her two older cubs in the Beaufort Sea on 16 September give contradictory details about the position of sea ice at the time. The same researcher told one reporter that the ship was 240 km from land, another that it was 240 km from the sea ice, and in another account (that he wrote himself), said the ship had been far from land and sea ice.

Beaufort swimming polar bears_Sept 30 2015_Global news

University of Victoria (Canada) chemical oceanographer Jay Cullen said on the expedition web site:

“After arriving on station and beginning work the crew noticed three polar bears in the water together which swam around to the ship when our water sampling system was nearly 3500 meters below the surface. The ship was located far from sea ice and land. Indeed, Arctic sea ice extent was the fourth lowest on record this year and there has been speculation that this imposes stress on polar bears which rely on the ice to hunt.”  [my bold]

But the maps below show that at the time of the incident (taken from the expedition web site) and the NSIDC Masie sea ice map for 16 September 2015, the ship [the CCGS Amundsen, acting as a research vessel] was actually quite close to an isolated large patch of sea ice, although further from the edge of the main pack. A patch of sea ice plenty big enough for a polar bear to rest upon – no wonder the bears did not appear stressed.

And the polar bear biologist Cullen consulted (Dr. Andrew Derocher) implied by his response that the bear was indeed far from sea ice. Reminds me of the swimming polar bear off the Hibernia oil platform off Newfoundland March 2015, which turned out to be not far from ice at all. See what you think.
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Polar Bear Town – Churchill bear stories on TV without gloom and doom propaganda

This was kind of fun – featuring the Churchill polar bear guiding trials and tribulations of PolarBearAlleys Kelsey Eliasson, Dennis Compayre, Brian Ladoon, which premiered Tuesday 22 September in Canada and the US. Supposedly, you can watch online episodes that have aired already (wouldn’t work for me).

Polar Bear Town premiere Sept 22 2015

This is a ‘reality’ TV series, not a documentary. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. But by focusing on independent polar bear guides, you see the bears in their element (and the goings-on in the town) without the constant lectures about global warming and predictions that the bears are all going to die that are, I understand, a feature of Tundra Buggy tours operated by the largest outfit, Frontiers North, due to its partnership with Polar Bears International, a strongly activist organization that many polar bear biologists belong (including Steven Amstrup, Ian Stirling, Andrew Derocher, former WWF employee Geoff York).

So far, anyway – perhaps the lectures are to come? YouTube Trailer below.

UPDATED 29 September 2015: OLN has posted the first episode on Youtube, copied below.
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Pacific walrus herd hauled out in Alaska during August was as large as last year’s

So, I guess they didn’t all die because of lack of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea. I said back on 28 August, just after the some unauthorized photos were publicized, that this haulout looked just as large as last year’s, if not larger (walruses are occasional prey of polar bears).

Walruses_USFWS photo_030515_March 2015

Now confirmed by an official US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate of 35,000 – not 36,000 mind you, or 34,000 – it was definitely 35,000. Odd, that. And surprisingly, they didn’t bother going out to count them until the day President Obama came to town. Would FWS have even bothered to get a count if there hadn’t been something newsworthy to tie it to?

Even more strange is the fact that this year, there was no accompanying hype. There were no links in any of the stories to FWS or USGS propaganda website pages, like there were last year (nor even a link to a press release). No mention of the FWS plan to have walruses declared ‘threatened with extinction because of global warming. And no mention of prosecution of the photographer who took the photos on 23 August, from the required distance, but without a permit. Note the permit number stamped on the official NOAA photo provided below (taken 2 September 2015), which few outlets carried, probably because it looks nothing like a photo of walruses on a beach:

walrus haul out NOAA Sept 2 2015

It appears that this year 35,000 walruses on a beach is a non-story. Go figure. Excerpts from the one, widely-circulated story below, from three days ago. See previous post for more walrus background, map, and video.
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Polar bears are not hungriest in summer when scientists are busy in the Arctic

Polar bears are leanest – and therefore, hungriest – at the end of March, not in the summer, as chemist Crispin Halsall stated in a recent article about working in the Arctic.

Polar bear feeding budget_PolarBearScience_6Sept2015

Recent September 1st stories by CNN and the BBC, based on a press release by WWF Russia on 27 August 2015, that five bears in the southern Kara Sea were hanging around a weather station and frightening workers there, apparently prompted chemist Crispen Halsall to make a nonsensical statement about polar bears being at their “hungriest” in summer (first here, reproduced here and picked up yesterday (September 5) by The Guardian here).

“In the path of the polar bears: what it’s like to be an Arctic scientist” (4 September 2015; Crispin Halsall, Reader in Environmental Chemistry at Lancaster University) had this to say:

“The case of Russian scientists trapped in their remote Arctic base by a group of inquisitive yet hungry polar bears does not come as a surprise. By late summer, Arctic sea ice is at a minimum and polar bears are effectively landlocked in coastal areas eagerly awaiting the return of ice during the autumn freeze and the chance to hunt seals again.

The Arctic summer is also the time of year when scientific activities are at their maximum, with bases operating at capacity and fieldwork operations at full flow, particularly in tundra and coastal regions. Polar bears are hungriest when scientists are busiest – “encounters” are inevitable. [my bold]

Polar bears are leanest – and therefore, the hungriest – at the end of winter (when it is more likely to kill with the intent to consume human prey) as stated clearly by Stirling and Øritsland (1995:2603):

Polar bears reach their lightest weights for the year in late March, just prior to the birth of the next cohort of ringed seal pups, which also suggests that it is the success of their hunting in spring and early summer that gives them the body reserves they need to survive through the rest of the year.” [my bold]

A polar bear that has not fed properly in spring – because it was young and inexperienced, too old or too young to defend its kills from bigger, stronger bears, or simply sick or injured – it might be unusually hungry in summer but it’s not the norm.  Polar bears eat nothing or very little over the summer (whether on land or on the ice) because they live off their stored fat – the physiological condition known as ‘fasting.’

The photos and video in the September 1, 2015 BBC story of the Russian bears shows this: the bears are fat, not skinny (“Video caption: Five bears settled near the weather station on the north Russian island of Vaygach, as Frankie McCamley reports”):

Beseiged by bears Russia BBC video Sept 1 2015

Polar bears might approach humans working in the Arctic during the summer because they are curious and/or bored, and they might attack and even eat humans because they have a drive to eat whenever the opportunity arises. But it’s not because they are “hungriest” in the summer.

Stirling, I. and Øritsland, N. A. 1995. Relationships between estimates of ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations in the Canadian Arctic. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 52: 2594 – 2612.

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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