Category Archives: Life History

Polar bear habitat update: many bears on the ice in Hudson Bay, lots of sea ice globally

Polar bear habitat over Hudson Bay was average this week (at 60% coverage), despite the odd pattern of breakup – but the end of spring in the Arctic is only 5 days away and there is still plenty of polar bear habitat in all regions.

Hudson Bay breakup 2015 June 22 and 24_sm

According to the Canadian Ice Service (CIS), there is still more ice in the eastern portion of the bay than usual and much less in the northwest (Fig. 1 below). There is far more ice than average ice in Hudson Strait, the approach to southern Davis Strait.

Figure 1. Hudson Bay sea ice, difference from average at 22 June 2015. Blue is less than average, red is more than average. CIS.

Figure 1. Hudson Bay sea ice, difference from average at 22 June 2015. Blue is less than average, red is more than average. CIS. Click to enlarge.

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Many polar bears cubs seen in Svalbard this year, says Norwegian biologist

Good news from Norway: polar bears around Svalbard are in excellent condition this spring and many females with new cubs have been spotted. This is a marked turn around from conditions just last year.

 Roy Mangersnes / Wildphoto

Roy Mangersnes / Wildphoto

According to a Norwegian news outlet yesterday, Jon Aars (Fig. 1, below), from the Norwegian Polar Institute, confirms that this has been an excellent year for polar bear cubs around Svalbard because there has been abundant sea ice near denning areas on the east coast.

Figure 1. Biologist Jon Aars with a Svalbard cub.

Figure 1. Biologist Jon Aars with a Svalbard cub.

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Same amount of sea ice for Hudson Bay polar bears as 2013, bears still on the ice

Sea ice coverage for Hudson Bay on 14 June converged on levels recorded in 2013, when breakup was slightly later than the average of the last two decades.


There is also more ice over Hudson Bay than there was in 2011, which was an early breakup year (charts for other Arctic regions here, originals here).

Andrew Derocher notes (via twitter) that rather than heading to shore, most of the Hudson Bay bears with satellite tracking collars (7/10) are out on the ice (Fig. 1 below). They appear to be hunting along the ice edge, where they are most likely to find seals.

Update 17 June 2015: Sea ice images for the week 18 June 2015 compared to other years added below, for Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea.

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Polar bear behaviour gets the animal tragedy porn treatment – two new papers

Recently, several polar bear biologists have teamed up with photographers to get pictures of starving bears into the scientific literature – and picked up by the media, with mixed results.

For the second time in five years, polar bear biologist Ian Stirling has teamed up with a photographer to give unwarranted scientific credence to an anecdotal account of polar bear behaviour. It included a picture of a pitifully thin animal  (classic animal tragedy porn) and was framed to increase alarm over predicted effects of global warming. It got little media attention.

His Norwegian colleagues Jon Aars and Magnus Andersen have just done the same with a bear caught eating a white-beaked dolphin (photo above) – but this time the media took the bait.

Update 13 June 2015 – Information added on white-beaked dolphin distribution, sea ice conditions in 2014 and a correction. See below.
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Hudson Bay breakup progressing slowly, still lots of polar bear habitat

Not much change in sea ice coverage since last week – most of Hudson Bay is still covered with concentrated ice, which is good news for Western and Southern Hudson Bay polar bears. They are still free to roam and hunt over most of the ice-covered bay.

Hudson Bay breakup 8 June 2015 vs 1 June_PolarBearScience

There may be slightly less ice than average for this time of year (Fig. 1, below) but coverage is still >70% with concentrated ice and does not appear to be melting quickly (see charts above and Fig. 2, below).

The dates for three previous earliest breakups according to Lunn and colleagues (Fig. 3) have come and gone, as all were in the first week of June (more on that in an upcoming post) – no records broken. More graphs and maps below, see previous posts here and here.
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Hudson Bay sea ice coverage is atypical this year but what does that mean for polar bears?

Churchill_Polar_Bear_2004-11-15 Wikipedia

There is a rather large patch of open water in the northwest sector but what’s also unusual about breakup this year is the virtual lack of open water in eastern Hudson Bay – that almost never happens (compare to 2013 here). In addition, there’s still very little open water in Hudson Strait, which connects Hudson Bay to Davis Strait in the east – that’s also unusual.

Figure 1.  Sea ice extent over Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait at 26 May 2015. Canadian Ice Service.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent over Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait at 26 May 2015. Canadian Ice Service. Click to enlarge.

The question is: does the somewhat unusual pattern of ice cover at this date – which developed rapidly over the last few weeks – suggest we can predict whether polar bears will have a shorter-than-average hunting season?

To answer that, you have to look at maps generated by the same source over several years. The result, in my opinion, is inconclusive – while so far, this year looks a bit more like 2009 (which was a very late sea ice breakup year) than it does 2011 (which was an early breakup year), it’s really too early to tell.

I suggest we simply won’t know for another month or so which pattern will prevail. However, that hasn’t stopped IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group member Andrew Derocher (via Twitter, e.g., here and here, among many others) from suggesting that this year’s pattern is likely a portend of doom for Hudson Bay polar bears. See what you think.
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Arctic polynyas and sea ice extent in Canada at 20 May 2015

The map of sea ice extent in Canada at 20 May 2015 is an almost-perfect example of the placement of recurring patches of open water polynyas that were present in the Canadian Arctic at this time of year in 1975-1979. Notes from field work on shore leads in Hudson Bay ice at May, 1948 offer further insight into the current pattern of sea ice cover on the bay.

Polynyas and shore leads vs sea ice at 20 May 2015_PolarBearScience

May is traditionally the time when recurring polynyas in the Canadian Arctic become more prominent and persistent shore leads (cracks in the ice near shore, also called “flaw leads”) become wider. Polar bears hunt around these polynyas because ringed and bearded seals congregate around them in the spring (Stirling et al. 1981; Stirling 1997). These polynyas are often not truly “open water” but covered by thin ice that’s easy for seals to break through.

Slight differences in location and size of polynyas and shore leads from year to year (especially in spring) are governed primarily by prevailing winds (Dunbar 1981:29) and to a lesser extent, currents. See my previous discussion on Beaufort Sea polynyas, with references: Beaufort Sea polynyas open two weeks before 1975 – open water is good news for polar bears.

This suggests that while sea ice cover over Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea is now a bit below average for this time of year (as the maps for this week show), it does not necessarily portend an earlier breakup or longer open-water period later in the year.

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