Tag Archives: Hudson Bay

Polar bear habitat update, end of November 2013

Freeze-up in the Arctic (~October-November) is important to polar bears because for those animals that have spent the ice-free period on shore (not all do), it marks the end of their summer fast — they can finally resume seal hunting.

Polar bears in the most southern regions, like Southern Hudson Bay, Western Hudson Bay, and Davis Strait (see Fig. 1), routinely experience the longest ice-free period. As these bears all spend the summer on shore, they appreciate a timely return of the ice.

 Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), with a few extra labels added. I’ve rotated the original map 90 degrees (right) to make it easier to relate to the ice maps below. WH is Western Hudson Bay. Courtesy PBSG.  Click to enlarge.


Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), with a few extra labels added. I’ve rotated the original map 90 degrees (right) to make it easier to relate to the ice maps below. WH is Western Hudson Bay; SB is Southern Beaufort. Courtesy PBSG. Click to enlarge.

Southern Hudson Bay bear populations routinely experience an ice-free season that is just as long as it is for Western Hudson Bay bears. However, Southern Hudson Bay polar bears numbers have remained stable over the last 30 years. Some folks insist that Western Hudson Bay bear numbers are shrinking to a worrisome degree, despite indications that the recent decline could be nothing more than a return to sustainable levels after a rapid population increase in the late 20th century (similar to changes documented for the Davis Strait and Barents Sea subpopulations).

Have a look at how sea ice – essential polar bear hunting habitat – has developed within these regions over the last 10 days or so (end of November 2013) and how November 2013 compares to November 1979. The ice maps tell the freeze-up story.
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Polar bear researchers still withholding Hudson Bay data

The latest polar bear propaganda emanating from The Guardian is unscientific nonsense fed to them by activist Canadian polar bear researchers: Polar bear numbers in Hudson Bay of Canada on verge of collapse.

This episode of Goldenberg’s polar bear grandstanding includes a photo caption with a totally unsubstantiated claim that some folks might call a lie:

Melting ice is cutting polar bears off from their food source in Hudson Bay, and death rates have soared.

“Death rates have soared”? Where are all the bodies? Show us the starving bears!

In fact, the ice of Hudson Bay melts every summer and always has done. When it does, polar bears go ashore and live off the many inches of stored blubber they put on during their spring feasting on fat baby seals. The last three years, the open-water season has been only about two weeks longer than it was in the 1980s. There has been no steady increase but lots of variability.

Below I dismantle the rest of this transparently political posturing ahead of the international polar bear forum next week.
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Hudson Bay freeze-up has not been a day later each year since 1981

[Update Nov. 23, 2013: I've added a few comments, noted, in the text]

This is a follow-up to an earlier post, Polar bear problems in N Hudson Bay not due to late freeze-up, to counter some misinformation that’s being circulated about the history of Hudson Bay freeze-up dates.

Polar bear biologists working in Western Hudson Bay published new definitions of breakup and freeze-up earlier this year. The new method better reflects how polar bears interact with seasonal changes in sea ice on the bay.

Formerly, 50% ice coverage levels were used to assign the date when major ice change phenomena were reached each year (breakup in summer, freeze-up in fall (e.g. Gagnon and Gough 2005). The new method (Cherry et al. 2013, see discussion here) defines breakup at 30% ice coverage and freeze-up at 10%.

Cherry and colleagues had a fairly complicated method of defining 30% coverage for breakup in Western Hudson Bay. However, freeze-up in the fall is much simpler because ice always forms first along the western shore, starting in the north.

This means that the weekly graphs of ice development provided by the Canadian Ice Service for Hudson Bay, which are expressed as a percentage (just like the Cherry et al. study), can be used to compare freeze-up dates historically.

These graphs refute the absurd claim that freeze-up on Hudson Bay has been “one day later each year” over the last 30 years – an assertion repeated just the other day at PBI. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
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Polar bear problems in N Hudson Bay not due to late freeze-up

The myth that northern Hudson Bay communities are having problems with polar bears this year because freeze-up is later than usual just won’t go away.

I discussed the well publicized craziness in Churchill last week (here and here), but there’s more. Polar bears are already leaving the shore of Northern Hudson Bay as the ice rapidly forms but I saw a story yesterday (dated late last week) that quoted a local official in Repulse Bay blaming their polar bear problems on late freeze-up.

I’ve written before about the peer-reviewed paper by polar bear researchers Seth Cherry and colleagues published earlier this year on breakup and freeze-up dates between 1991 and 2009. But perhaps the freeze-up data needs more emphasis. I’ve copied that graph again below, with notes, and added some ice maps. See for yourself.

Bottom line: A “late freeze-up” for northwestern Hudson Bay occurs when ice formation is delayed until early December or beyond. Freeze-up was nowhere near “late” this year, nor was the ice “slow to freeze.” It wasn’t last year either.
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Hudson Bay freeze-up average this year – not late

Freeze-up in Western Hudson Bay is finally underway. It’s no later this year than average, similar to last year.

This rather contradicts the hysterical hue and cry from the tag-team of Polar Bears International (PBI) spokesperson Steven Amstrup and Guardian reporter Suzanne Goldenberg last week during PBI’s “Polar Bear Week” propaganda blitz (see previous posts here, here, and here), 

So much for the trend towards later freeze-up dates that PBI says is endangering polar bears in Western Hudson Bay.

On-the-ground observers confirm polar bears are preparing to move out and sea ice maps show the ice is forming very rapidly — see maps and quotes below.

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Eemian excuses: the warm was different then, polar bears were fine

Today I’ll discuss the response by Polar Bears International representative Steven Amstrup to a comment submitted during their recent “webchat” at The Guardian (Wednesday, November 6), which had to do with the fact that polar bears survived warm periods in the geological past, particularly interglacials.

[Here’s a pdf file of all the questions that were answered by PBI staff: PBI webchat Q&A, also available here]

This is the comment (the first portion of #4 on my list), submitted by MarkBLR:

There was a paper in Science magazine last year (link …) indicating that polar bears became a distinct species about 600kya (+/- 300k years).

This means that they have survived at least two (and possibly eight) previous inter-glacials, in particular the Eemian (130kya to 110kya), when temperatures in the Arctic were 5 to 8 degrees Celcius warmer than current temperatures for several thousand years.

Note that their numbers apparently decreased significantly during the Eemian, and slowly increased as temperatures cooled, but “climate change” was not enough on its own to make them extinct. [my bold]

[We can perhaps forgive Mark for not being able to spell “Celsius” correctly, but Amstrup (see below) has no excuse. The paper in Science Mark refers to is Hailer et al. 2012, discussed in a previous post here. Note that the actual question Mark asked is not included here because Amstrup responded to this portion of his comment only]

Amstrup tries to convince Mark and other readers that polar bear resilience through Eemian warming is irrelevant to the issue of future survival, which I’ll demonstrate is not the case at all.

Here is what Amstrup had to say:
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Polar bear habitat update for October 31, 2013

Here’s the ground-truth follow-up to my suggestion of what polar bear habitat would likely look like 6 weeks after the minimum extent was reached this year – which was looking then like it would mirror 2009.

You’ll find my discussion, posted on September 22, here. At that point (September 13), ice extent was 5.1 million square kilometers; now it is 9.1 million square kilometers (Fig.1).

Figure 1. Oct 30 2013 Maisie sea ice extent, 9.1 mkm2. This does not take thickness or concentration into account.

Figure 1. Oct 30 2013 Maisie sea ice extent, 9.1 mkm2. Click to enlarge.

Have a look at the maps below: Fig. 2 to see how ice extent at October 31st compares to ice extent at the end of October 2009, and Fig. 3 to see what ice concentrations looked like in the Canadian Arctic.

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What polar bear habitat could look like in another 5-6 weeks

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC, Sept. 20 report), the annual sea ice minimum extent was reached on Sept. 13, 2013.

At 5.10 million square kilometers, this year’s low was a whopping 1.69 million square kilometers above the minimum extent for 2012 (which was the lowest since 1979) and well within two standard deviations of the 1979-2010 average. (Two standard deviations: “Measurements that fall far outside of the two standard deviation range or consistently fall outside that range suggest that something unusual is occurring that can’t be explained by normal processes”).

The minimum extent for 2013 is virtually indistinguishable from the minimum for 2009, which was 5.13 million square kilometers. The ice was distributed a bit differently in 2009 – more in the east and less in the west — than it was this year (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. Using the JAXA “Sea ice monitor” feature, I plotted the date the 2013 minimum was reached (September 13, 5.10 million square kilometers, white) with an overlay (purple) for the same date back in 2009 (September 13, 2009, 5.13 million square kilometers), when that year’s minimum was reached (according to the NSIDC report). Areas of overlap are pink.

Figure 1. I used JAXA to plot the date the 2013 minimum was reached (September 13, 5.10 million square kilometers, white) with an overlay (purple) for the same date back in 2009 (September 13, 2009, 5.13 million square kilometers), when that year’s minimum was reached. Areas of overlap are pink.

You’ll know from previous discussions here that the annual minimum reached in late summer has little impact on polar bear health and survival (see excellent summary of the evidence for that here). What matters most to polar bears is the presence of ample ice in spring and early summer (March-June), which is their critical feeding period.

But after the fast that many polar bears endure over the height of the summer, they are eager to get back onto the ice and resume hunting. When in the fall does that become possible?

I wondered what the similarity in extent for 2013 and 2009 might tell us about polar bear habitat development over the next month or so.

In other words, what might polar bears this year expect in the way of sea ice development by say, the end of October? When might they be able to start hunting?

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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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Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice

PB_male on ice_Regehr USFWS_March 2010_labeledTracking Beaufort Sea polar bears over the summer — what can it tell us about how important the position of summer sea ice relative to the shoreline in this region is to these bears? Do Beaufort Sea bears get stranded on shore like the polar bears in Davis Strait and Hudson Bay?

Polar bear biologist Eric Regehr (with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, or FWS) has a team working with US Geological Survey researchers (USGS) in the southern Beaufort tracking where adult female polar bears go throughout the year. This is part of on-going research in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea (see previous post here; see also Fish & Wildlife 2009; Polar Bear News 2010 and 2013; Rode and Regehr 2010, pdfs below; and just out, the “accepted” version of the Rode et al. paper discussed here, and announced in my last post here).

The researchers have been posting a summary map at the end of each month on the USGS website showing the tracks of the females they fitted with radio collars the previous spring — for 2013, and back to 2010. They can’t put collars on male bears because their necks are larger around than their heads, so a collar would just slip off.

I’ve posted the July 2013 track map below, which shows all ten bears out on the ice, and the previous month (June 2013) to compare it to (the August map should be out shortly). I’ve included a few maps from 2012 to allow you to compare this year’s results to the situation last summer.

The August tracks should be available after the Labour Day weekend – check back next week to see where the bears have been this month. I’ll post the map here or you can go to the USGS website directly. [UPDATE Sept 4, 2013: The August map is up, posted here.]

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