Tag Archives: heavy sea ice

Polar bear cannibalism and sea ice, the spring of 1976

Remember Ian Stirling’s claim that late freeze up in Western Hudson Bay in 2009 was forcing polar bears to resort to cannibalism (here and here), with gut-wrenching images and video provided for the media? Or Steve Amstrup’s claim for a similar phenomenon in the Southern Beaufort in 2004?

I pointed out that Stirling’s claim was way overblown and that Amstrup’s incidents were almost certainly the result of heavy ice in the spring (not low ice in summer), similar to the heavy ice conditions and polar bear starvation documented in the same region back in 1974-1976.

It turns out that the heavy ice conditions documented in the Eastern Beaufort in the mid-1970s had much broader effects on polar bears and ringed seals than has been appreciated.
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Record sea ice loss in 2007 had no effect on polar bears, Chukchi study confirms

One aspect of the recently published study on Chukchi Sea polar bears (Rode et al.2014 [now in print] 2013; see here and here) has not been stressed enough: their finding that the differences in overall condition between bears in the Chukchi and Southern Beaufort Seas came down to disparities in spring feeding opportunities and therefore, the condition of spring sea ice.

The fact that spring — not summer — is the most critical period for polar bears is something I’ve pointed out before (see here and here, for example) but it’s worth repeating at this time of year, when all eyes are on the annual ice minimum. It is often treated as a given that the decline in extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic since 1979 has been detrimental to polar bears. However, this is an assumption that we can now say is not supported by scientific evidence (see summary of that evidence here).

The results published by Rode et al. (2014 2013) not only add further support to the conclusion that declines in summer sea ice have not harmed polar bears, but should put the matter to rest – unless new evidence to the contrary is produced.

Chukchi bears, the report tells us, had more food available in the spring than Southern Beaufort bears (see map below) and this was the primary reason that bears were doing very well in the Chukchi and not quite as well in the Southern Beaufort. And because the polar bears for this study were captured and measured in mid-March to early May, from 2008 to 2011, they reflect spring-time conditions for 2008-2011 as well as year-round conditions from 2007 through 2010.

This means that the annual low ice extent for 2007 (record-breaking at the time), in the fall before this study began, had no discernible negative effect on either Chukchi or Southern Beaufort polar bears – and neither did similarly low annual minimums in two of the three remaining years of the study (Fig 1).

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at August 27, 2007 – the lowest extent that year (downloaded September 15, 2013 from IARC-JAXA, Arctic Sea-ice Monitor). At the time, it was the lowest extent recorded since 1979 (2012 broke that record). This (2007) was the fall before the Rode & Regehr study on Chukchi/Southern Beaufort polar bears began (2008-2011). The ice was almost as low in September 2008 and 2010, while 2009 was more like 2013.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at August 27, 2007 – the lowest extent that year (downloaded September 15, 2013 from IARC-JAXA, Arctic Sea-ice Monitor). At the time, it was the lowest extent recorded since 1979 (2012 broke that record). This (2007) was the fall before the Rode & Regehr study on Chukchi/Southern Beaufort polar bears began (2008-2011). The ice was almost as low in 2008 and 2010, while 2009 was more like 2013.

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Polar bears have not been harmed by sea ice declines in summer – the evidence

PB  logo colouredThe polar bear biologists and professional activists of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) continue to insist that since 1979 increasingly smaller amounts of Arctic sea ice left at the end of summer (the September ice minimum) have already caused harm to polar bears. They contend that global warming due to CO2 from fossil fuels (“climate warming” in their lexicon) is the cause of this decline in summer ice.

In a recent (2012) paper published in the journal Global Change Biology (“Effects of climate warming on polar bears: a review of the evidence”), long-time Canadian PBSG  members Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher (both of University of Alberta) summarized their position this way:

“Climate warming is causing unidirectional changes to annual patterns of sea ice distribution, structure, and freeze-up. We summarize evidence that documents how loss of sea ice, the primary habitat of polar bears (Ursus maritimus), negatively affects their long-term survival”

I’ve spent the last year examining their evidence of on-going harm, but in addition, I’ve looked at the evidence (much of it not mentioned in the Stirling and Derocher paper1) that polar bears have either not been harmed by less sea ice in summer or have thrived in spite of it.

This is a summary of my findings. I’ve provided links to my original essays on individual topics, which are fully referenced and illustrated. You are encouraged to consult them for complete details. This synopsis (pdf with links preserved, updated; pdf with links as footnotes, updated) complements and updates a previous summary, “Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears” (pdf with links preserved; pdf with a foreword by Dr. Matt Ridley, with links as footnotes).

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Great polar bear red herring in the Southern Beaufort

Red herring iconWe know that thick-ice springs occurred in 1974, 1975, 1986, 1992, 2004, and 2005 in the former ‘Eastern Beaufort’ – now the southern portion of the ‘Northern Beaufort’ and the eastern portion of the ‘Southern Beaufort.’ We know that these severe spring ice conditions negatively impacted both polar bears and ringed seals in this region every decade since the 1960s because the effects have been documented by numerous studies conducted in April through May for polar bears (Amstrup et al. 2006; Cherry et al. 2009; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling et al. 1993; Stirling et al. 2008) and in June and July for ringed seals (Harwood et al. 2012; Smith 1987), see previous posts here, here, and here.

For example, even though Ian Stirling and colleagues argued in their 2008 paper that the thick spring ice conditions in 2004, 2005 and 2006 (but not those in previous decades) were caused by storms initiated or intensified by greater amounts of open water in previous summers, they did not deny that the thick-ice springs occurred. They stated quite clearly that:

The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s each experienced a two- to three-year decline in seal productivity in the eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf, associated with heavy ice conditions, around mid-decade. Each was followed by a decline in polar bear reproduction and condition, after which both seal and bear populations recovered (Smith, 1987; Harwood et al., 2000; Stirling, 2002). The beginning of each of those three periods was associated with heavy ice conditions through the winter before the reproductive decline of the seals, followed by a late spring breakup.” [my bold]

So, I have to say, I was shocked but not surprised to find that in the more recent scientific literature, the phenomenon of thick-ice springs every decade in Southern and Northern Beaufort has been deliberately ‘disappeared.’ 

Not surprised because I suspected it had happened — this issue was a feature of the Stirling and Derocher (2012) paper from late last year which was the topic of my very first blog post, “Cooling the polar bear spin.

However, I think it is important to document how the transmogrification of sea ice effects on polar bears was managed in the scientific literature so that everyone can see exactly what has been done. In a truly astonishing move for what is supposed to be a field of science, thick-ice springs have been effectively replaced by an open-water red herring as the scourge of Southern Beaufort polar bears.

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Why is it that every decade, Eastern Beaufort sea ice gets really thick?

I’ve written before about the incidents of starving polar bears in the eastern portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea (here, here, and here). For two or three years every decade since the 1960s, shorefast ice in the Eastern Beaufort (Fig. 1) has become too thick and compressed in the spring for ringed seals to maintain their breathing holes, so most or all of them presumably go elsewhere — as seals did in Greenland when ice got too thick there (Vibe 1965). With few or no seal pups born during March and April in thick ice years, some bears had a hard time finding enough food: starving bears and dying cubs were the result.

Figure 1. Eastern portion of the southern Beaufort Sea.  The communities of Tuktoyatuk (locally known as ‘Tuk’), and Sachs Harbour on southern Banks Island, have been useful starting points for polar bear research because they are accessible by plane via the larger community of Inuvik The light blue portions, e.g. along western Banks Island and the Eastern Beaufort/Yukon mainland coast, indicate shallow continental shelf areas (20 km wide in places) where extensive shorefast ice develops every winter. Main map from Beaufort Sea Partnership, inset map from Wikipedia.

Figure 1. ‘Eastern Beaufort’ (yellow square) polar bear study region.
The communities of Tuktoyatuk (locally known as ‘Tuk’), and Sachs Harbour on southern Banks Island have been used as base camps for polar bear research because they are accessible by plane via the larger community of Inuvik.
The light blue portions along western Banks Island and the Eastern Beaufort/Yukon mainland coast indicate shallow continental shelf areas (20 km wide in places) where extensive shorefast ice develops every winter.
Main map from Beaufort Sea Partnership, inset map from Wikipedia.

I’ve been trying to get my head around why this would happen in the Eastern Beaufort. Once or twice – maybe – but several times every decade? What on earth drives such a process?

So, I did some reading (actually, quite a lot of reading) and have what appears to be at least a partial answer.

All indications are that the occasional development of exceptionally thick spring ice in the Eastern Beaufort is the result of an entirely natural, cyclical phenomenon. However, some polar bear biologists are attempting to blame the latest episode (but not earlier ones) on increased amounts of open water in the Chukchi Sea during fall of the early 2000s. That doesn’t seem a plausible explanation to me, given the history of the sea ice in this region. Have a look.

Figure 2. Beaufort sea pressure ridges, spring 1949. Courtesy Wikipedia (from NOAA “At the ends of the Earth” image collection #corp1014).

Figure 2. Beaufort sea pressure ridges, spring 1949. Courtesy Wikipedia (from NOAA’s “At the ends of the Earth” image collection #corp1014).

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NSIDC says the sea ice minimum in 1964 was not different from 1979, 1981, or 2001

I just came across the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) “monthly highlights” article for April 2013 (Glimpses of sea ice past), which turned out to be a rather more interesting story than it appeared at first glance.

The article chronicles the details of how NSIDC technicians pieced together photos taken by the Nimbus 1 satellite between August 28 and September 23, 1964 – of both the Arctic and the Antarctic – to create an estimate of sea ice extent at September 1964 for both regions. For the Arctic, this was the yearly minimum; for the Antarctic, the yearly maximum.

NSIDC scientist Walt Meier was part of this effort and he and colleagues Gallaher and Campbell recently published their findings in the journal The Cryosphere (Meier et al. 2013). For the Arctic estimate, they had to add in data from Alaskan and Russian sea ice charts because the 1964 satellite data was not complete. This means the ice extent figure they came up with is not a true ‘satellite only’ figure but a composite one.

One of the things they did in their analysis was to place the 1964 value on a graph of the more recent 1979-2012 data, which really helps put it into perspective (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. This is Fig. 7 from the Meier et al. 2013 paper, to which I’ve added labels. Meier et al. call this a “time series of Arctic September sea ice extent.” The estimate for 1964 is the red dot on the far left (with its error bars), which I’ve circled (I also added the red label for 1964 and the black line). Note the Y-axis on the left goes to 3.0 million km2, not zero. The solid blue line is the monthly average for September from passive microwave data (1979-2012), and the blue dashed lines are a “three-day average of the high and low range of daily extents during the month.” The 1964 estimate of 6.90 ± 0.3 million km2 is just about identical to 1979, 1981, and 2001 and well within the average for 1979-2000. However, it’s significantly lower than the previous estimate of 8.28 million km2 for 1964 made by the UK Hadley Centre in 2003 (Meier et al. 2013:704).

Figure 1. This is Fig. 7 from the Meier et al. 2013 paper, to which I’ve added labels. Meier et al. call this a “time series of Arctic September sea ice extent.” The estimate for 1964 is the red dot on the far left (with its error bars), which I’ve circled (I also added the red label for 1964 and the black line). Note the Y-axis on the left goes to 3.0 million km2, not zero. The solid blue line is the monthly average for September from passive microwave data (1979-2012), and the blue dashed lines are a “three-day average of the high and low range of daily extents during the month.” The 1964 estimate of 6.90 ± 0.3 million km2 is just about identical to 1979, 1981, and 2001 and well within the average for 1979-2000. However, Meier and colleagues note it is significantly lower than the previous estimate of 8.28 million km2 for 1964, made by the UK Hadley Centre in 2003.

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Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears

IMPORTANT UPDATE March 13, 2013 Benny Peiser over at the Global Warming Policy Foundation has just posted an essay by well-known author Matt Ridley, entitled “We should be listening to Susan Crockford” which is included as a foreword to a pdf of this very post (“Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears”), suitable for sharing. I encourage you to have a look.

[Update September 28, 2013: See also this follow-up post "Polar bears have not been harmed by sea ice declines in summer — the evidence."]

Polar Bear-Cubs-Canada_Wallpaper

PB  logo colouredThis year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of an international agreement to protect polar bears from commercial and unregulated sport hunting. The devastating decades of uncontrolled slaughter across the Arctic, including the Bering Sea, finally came to an end. And so in honor of International Polar Bear Day (Wed. February 27) – and because some activists are calling 2013 The Year of the Polar Bear – I’ve made a summary of reasons not to worry about polar bears, with links to supporting data. I hope you find it a useful resource for tuning out the cries of doom and gloom about the future of polar bears and celebrating their current success.

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Andrew Derocher refuses to accept that polar bears have been saved

Andrew Derocher, an known polar bear advocate, has been making headlines again, this time promoting a new “policy paper” he is lead author on that has just been accepted for publication. He and his colleagues simply refuse to accept that the polar bear has been saved (population numbers have rebounded dramatically since protective legislation was introduced in 1973) and it seems all they can think of to do now is press for ever more restrictive regulations.

The timing of the release of this paper is very convenient: Fish and Wildlife biologists and polar bear activists worldwide are actively campaigning to get CITES, at their meeting next month, to make it illegal to trade in legally harvested polar bear parts (see previous post here). Canada is also under international pressure to up-list the status of the polar bear to “threatened,” see post here.

The article itself is behind a paywall (abstract and co-author list below), so it is unlikely that many people outside the choir of conservation advocate subscribers of the journal will ever read it, so Derocher is talking it up big time, with the help of his university PR department. Timely indeed. [h/t WUWT]

Update Feb 12, 2013 – I now have a copy of the Derocher et al in press paper. If anyone would like to see it, please send me a note via the “Commments-Tips” page above

Update October 20, 2013 – the Derocher et al. paper is now in print and I’ve updated the citation information below

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The conundrum of cold winter effects in Hudson Bay

This is a follow-up on my last post regarding Beaufort Sea ringed seal declines and polar bear mortalities in cold winters. In that post, I discussed studies showing that when shorefast ice in the eastern Beaufort was thick, some polar bear females were found starving and many cubs died because newborn ringed seals (food!) were not available.

In these cold winters (months of Jan/Feb/March), the breeding-age male seals and pregnant females that would normally set up territories in the shorefast ice in preparation for the birth of pups and mating, appear to have moved offshore into the pack ice before pups were born (pups may or may not have been lost and mating may or may not have occurred).
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Cooling the polar bear spin

I’ve had quite enough of the obfuscation of facts and model-based extrapolations into the future with regards to polar bears. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who is interested in what polar bears are doing now and, as much as can be determined, get some understanding of what the biological, geological and evolutionary history of polar bears and their habitat looks like. Spare us the emotional media hype, icon-peddling and fear-mongering about the future — we’d just like some information about the bears!

Polar bears at the Stanley Park Zoo, Vancouver, taken with my first camera in the early 1970s.

I’ve been looking at the scientific literature produced by polar bear and Arctic seal biologists for some time and I’ve found it contains some rather interesting and potentially important facts that are being left out, glossed over, or misrepresented in statements and publications generated by polar bear advocates of all kinds. It’s past time for these issues to be brought to light and publicized in one easily-accessible, up-datable forum. Hence, PolarBearScience.com — a new blog in which I discuss the science of polar bears while throwing cold water on some of the spin.

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