Tag Archives: Southern Beaufort

Summer sea ice melt and polar bear maternity dens

The yearly sea ice minimum extent is almost upon us, which has recently been the seasonal signal for excitable biologists and their activist groupies to resume their breathless rants about what sea ice loss could mean for polar bears.

Polar bear den_CreditUSFWS_labeled

Never mind that the summer minimum extent reached in September, no matter how low it goes, is pretty much irrelevant to polar bear health and survival. As I’ve discussed before, what’s really important is the presence of not-too-thick ice during the spring, so they can catch lots of young seals and put on lots of fat.

But to a lesser degree, the extent at mid-to-late summer is important because this is when pregnant females that prefer to make their maternity dens on shore are looking for good places to spend the winter.

So the topic for today is this: how much does the extent of ice at the height of summer dictate where polar bear females make their winter dens?
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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – July 2014 map and subpopulation boundary issues

Here is the July 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 July 2004 is copied below (Fig. 1).

Compare this to June’s map (Fig. 4). The 20 bears from May (down to 14 in June) are now down to 13. 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 and July maps below are females.

One bear has moved into Canadian territory and another is well into the Chukchi Sea. This is now known to be a typical rather than unusual phenomenon, and is pertinent to the bigger picture of what constitutes a discrete geographic subpopulation for polar bears.
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W Hudson Bay mark-recapture studies of polar bears were invalid, says peer-reviewed study

“Our results suggest that mark–recapture estimates may have been negatively biased due to limited spatial sampling. We observed large numbers of bears summering in southeastern WH, an area not regularly sampled by mark–recapture.” Stapleton et al. 2014.

Polar bear at Wapusk National Park (just south of Churchill) in August 2011. Courtesy Parks Canada.

Polar bear at Wapusk National Park in August 2011. Courtesy Parks Canada.

We’ve seen the results of this 2011 study before, in government report format. But now it’s been revamped, peer-reviewed and published in a respected scientific journal – it actually came out in February, without fanfare, but I’ve only just come across it.

Some excerpts below, with conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

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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.
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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

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – April map not yet available

Cannot do my April 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.

“Tracking Polar Bears by Satellite” has not yet been updated with the April map, which is unusual for this late in the month (it is usually updated within the first few working days of every month). Perhaps the sea ice data they use was late being processed?

Here is the map for March, discussed previously here.

Figure 1. Movements of 5 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of March, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 5 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters. Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end March), while the other end of the string is their position in early March. These are the same 5 females that were present in January. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Movements of 5 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of March, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 5 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters. Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end March), while the other end of the string is their position in early March. These are the same 5 females that were present in January. Click to enlarge.

Previous dates for tracking available here.

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]

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