Southern Beaufort sea ice melt in May: good news for polar bears or catastrophe?

Last week biologist Andrew Derocher recently implied via twitter that less sea ice in the eastern portion of the Southern Beaufort (SB) this year at mid-May is harmful to polar bears (calling it “a hole in the ice where polar bears used to live“), but both long-term and short-term data don’t support such a glass-half-empty interpretation.

Not only does spring breakup of sea ice in the SB normally begin with such open patches of water (see the video above from last year) — driven by the powerful currents of the Beaufort Gyre, not ice melt (explained in detail here) — it may actually be necessary for the survival of local seals, polar bears and whales in spring and early summer (Citta et al. 2015; Crawford et al. 2015; Harwood et al. 2015; Stirling et al. 1981).

As I’ve pointed out before, the biggest threat to SB bears is thick sea ice in spring and its associated late breakup, a 2-3 year-long phenomenon unique to this region known to have occurred about every 10 years since the early 1960s (well documented in the scientific literature) but which has not (as far as I know) happened since 2004-2006.

In other words, a considerable patch of open water and less concentrated ice in the eastern SB around Cape Bathurst is almost certainly a good thing for this particular subpopulation (see previous post here for an in-depth discussion) because historically, when a polynya of some extent has not formed by April or May it has been devastating for local marine mammals.

The fact that an extensive patch of open water existed at mid-May in this region last year and the year before (2015 and 2016) — with no public hue-and-cry about a great dying of SB bears from Derocher or anyone else — suggests that open water in the eastern SB this year is likely to be beneficial for SB polar bears, or at least benign. Continue reading

Polar bear mating season winds down with lots of sea ice habitat available

Habitat for polar bears is abundant worldwide as the prime feeding season passes its peak and mating season for sexually mature bears winds down.


Battle among polar bear males for the right to mate, from this 2011 DailyMail story here.

There is much more ice than usual around Svalbard in the Barents Sea and off Newfoundland and southern Labrador, home to ‘Davis Strait’ bears. There have been no media reports of polar bears onshore anywhere (since the third week of April in Newfoundland and late January in Svalbard).

Sea ice map below for 12 May 2017:

Svalbard ice extent 2017 May 12_NIS

Compare the extent and concentration of ice around Svalbard above (at 12 May 2017) to conditions that prevailed on the same date in 2015 (below), considered a “good ice” year for local polar bears (and the year of the last population size count which registered an increase over the 2004 count):

Svalbard ice extent 2015 May 12_NIS

There hasn’t been this much ice in the area at this point in the season for many years, especially to the north of Svalbard, and levels since late April have been above even the long-term average (disregard the huge downward blip, which is clearly a sensor malfunction of some kind):

Svalbard ice extent 2017 May 12 graph_NIS

In fact, ice is pretty solid throughout the Barents Sea and East Greenland at this time:

Barents Sea ice extent 2017 May 12_NIS

Across the Atlantic, the situation is similar, with unseasonably heavy sea ice off eastern North America and the Southern Beaufort Sea.

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IUCN PBSG insists the 2015 Barents Sea polar bear count was not an increase

Similar to the spin on the 2013 Baffin Bay/Kane Basin polar bear population survey, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group now insists the latest count of the Barents Sea subpopulation is not evidence of an increase in numbers since 2004, as the leader of the study announced in 2015.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

This is Part 2 of the big surprises in the latest version of the polar bear status table published by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) on 30 March 2017. See last post here regarding the PBSG population size estimates that no longer concur with the 2015 Red List assessment, including the global total — even though PBSG members wrote the report (Wiig et al. 2015, and its Supplement).

Here I want to focus on the results of subpopulation surveys that were made public after the 2015 Red List assessment was published, particularly the Barents Sea estimate.

While the 2013 Baffin Bay and Kane Basin estimates (SWG 2016) have been added to the new PBSG table, any suggestion that these might indicate population increases are strong discounted. Similarly, contrary to initial reports by the principal investigators of the survey, the PBSG insist that the Barents Sea population has not actually increased since 2004, which you may or many not find convincing.

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IUCN Specialist Group now rejects polar bear numbers it used for 2015 IUCN Red List review

Is there a mutiny in the works between the IUCN Red List and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) over polar bear population estimates or has there simply been a breach of ethics? What else explains the fact that some of the subpopulation estimates used by the PBSG to support the status of ‘vulnerable’ for the IUCN Red List in 2015 are unacceptable to them in 2017? And why are the PBSG refusing to embrace the Red List global estimate of 22,000-31,000?

2015 IUCN Red List estimates vs IUCN PBSG 2017

The latest version of the IUCN PBSG status table was posted online 30 March 2017 without fanfare or even a note on their home page. It seems the result came from much discussion at their official meeting last summer (June 2016) that they say continued into early March 2017.

2017 population status update early March headline

PBGS members voted to reject four subpopulation estimates used in the 2015 Red List polar bear status review  — even though the inclusion of those numbers was required in order for the Red List status of ‘vulnerable’ to be upheld. The group has also chosen not to update their global population page with the Red List estimate of 22,000-31,000.

And surprise, surprise — now that only one subpopulation out of nineteen worldwide has shown a recent decline, the PBSG have removed the “trend” columns from their summary table for subpopulations.

Welcome to conservation ‘science’ practiced by IUCN polar bear specialists.
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Experts’ vision of an ice-free summer is already wrong & benefitting polar bears

Polar bear populations in most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (CAA) must be booming, as they are elsewhere. That’s because the ‘experts’ were even more wrong in their predictions of future sea ice conditions than most people realize: they expected the CAA would remain choked with ice during a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer driven by human-caused global warming.


Wang and Overland 2012 fig 3b marked

Map presented by Wang and Overland (2012: Fig 3) shows what these experts thought a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer would look like, which they expected to occur by 2030 or so.

Look at the map from Wang and Overland (2012) above, which is what they thought a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer would look like in the year 2030 or so.

Wang and Overland used the same models used by USGS biologists to predict the future survival of polar bears based on habitat loss (Amstrup et al. 2007; Atwood et al. 2016; Durner et al. 2007, 2009). Note the thick ice in the CAA — what USGS experts call the ‘Archipelago’ sea ice ecoregion (denoted by white in the map), indicating ice about 1 metre thick (2-3 feet) — expected to remain at the height of summer in 2030.

[Earlier renditions of sea ice projections (e.g. ACIA 2005) show something similar. The second update of the ACIA released just yesterday (AMAP 2017, described here by the CBC) has prudently included no such firm predictions in their Summary for Policy Makers, just dire warnings of future catastrophe. But see the 2012 update.]

The problem is that ice in this region has been largely absent most summers since 2006, even though overall ice extent has been much more extensive than expected for a ‘nearly ice-free’ summer, as I show below.

This is not another “worse than we thought” moment (Amstrup et al. 2007) — this is sea ice models so wrong as to be useless: failed models used to inform future polar bear survival models that got the bears declared ‘threatened’ with extinction in the US in 2008 (Crockford 2017).

It also means polar bears are almost certainly doing much better than recent population counts indicate, since only one subpopulation out of the six in the CAA has recently been assessed but since polar bear specialists have consistently underestimated the adaptability of this species and the resilience of the Arctic ecosystem to respond to changing conditions, it’s hard to take any of their hyperbole about the future of polar bears seriously. Continue reading

Sea ice off Newfoundland thickest ever yet another polar bear comes ashore

Amid reports that ice conditions between Newfoundland and southern Labrador are the worst in living memory, another polar bear was reported ashore in the area — just after biologist Andrew Derocher explained to the CBC that bears only come on land when sea ice conditions “fail.”

Strait-of-belle-isle pack ice_April 19 2017_Nordik Relais

“Ice too thick for coast guard’s heavy icebreaker” said a 20 April 2017 CBC report on the state of ice in the Strait of Belle Isle. The pack is thick first year ice (four feet thick or more in places) and embedded with icebergs of much older, thicker ice. The ice packed along the northern shore of Newfoundland is hampering fishermen from getting out to sea and is not expected to clear until mid-May.

NASA Worldview shows the extent of the pack ice over northwest Newfoundland and southern Labrador on 19 April 2017 (the Strait of Belle Isle is the bit between the two):

Newfoundland Labrador sea ice 19 April 2017 NASA Worldview

The same day that the above satellite image was taken (19 April), at the north end of the Strait on the Newfoundland side, a polar bear was spotted in a small community northwest of St. Anthony (marked below,  “Wildberry Country Lodge” at Parker’s Brook). It’s on the shore of north-facing Pistolet Bay on the Great Northern Peninsula, near the 1000 year old Viking occupation site of L’Anse aux Meadows.

Parkers Brook location on Pistolet Bay

There were no photos of the Parker’s Brook bear but lots of others have been taken this year of almost a dozen seen along Newfoundland shorelines since early March: see my recently updated post, with an updated map of reported sightings. Harp seals are now abundant in the pack ice of southern Davis Strait, providing polar bears with an ample source of food when they need it most and therefore, a strong attractant to the area.

St brendan's bear 01 VOCM report 5 April 2017 Tracy Hynes

Yet, as I reported yesterday, polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher told the CBC this week that polar bears are almost always “forced” ashore by poor ice conditions. The CBC report included his tweet from 10 April, where he suggested “failed” Newfoundland ice conditions were the cause of multiple bears onshore in Newfoundland this year.

Similar thick ice conditions off northern Newfoundland (perhaps even worse) occurred in 2007, see Twillingate in the spring of 2007 below:

Twillingate-heavy ice-20070523_2007 CBC David Boyd photo

Yet, in 2007 there was not a single polar bear reported onshore in Newfoundland (as far as I am aware) but this year there were almost a dozen. And the photos taken this year show fat, healthy bears – not animals struggling to survive.

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Still lots of East Coast sea ice but prof tells CBC it doesn’t bode well for polar bears

Davis Strait polar bears around Newfoundland and Labrador are currently experiencing what one polar bear specialist refers to as “failed” sea ice conditions, causing bears to come ashore in droves. I’m not making this up.

Sea ice extent Canada 2017 April 21 CIS

The ice was so thick in the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and southern Labrador last week that a ferry was stuck for 24 hours and had to be rescued by an icebreaker.

The boats of fisherman on the north shore of Newfoundland are stuck in thick ice that’s not expected to clear until mid-May at the earliest and they can’t get out to fish.

boats-in-ice-near-twillingate_CBC_19 April 2017

See this video posted on Twitter two days ago.

The same thing (perhaps even worse) happened in 2007, see Twillingate in the spring of 2007 below:

Twillingate-heavy ice-20070523_2007 CBC David Boyd photo

Yet, in 2007 there was not a single polar bear reported onshore in Newfoundland (as far as I am aware) but this year there were almost a dozen. And the photos show fat, healthy bears – not animals struggling to survive.

East Coast March April polar bear sightings 2017 V3_9 April

According to Andrew Derocher, that’s proof “failed” sea ice is the reason that polar bears came ashore this year but not last year (when there was also lots of ice in late March/early April, see additional maps and graphs below). Last year there were sightings in the middle of winter (January/February) in Labrador and Newfoundland (which I reported here) and one bear was shot in Newfoundland in early May when he advanced on local RCMP officers.

I think Derocher believes he’s set the record straight by offering an interview of his own to refute the things I said to the CBC last week (I talked on two Newfoundland radio stations, which generated a print CBC article). But Newfoundlanders have to deal with used car salesmen just like the everyone else, so I expect they are having a good laugh right now at the expert who’s blaming their polar bear troubles on a lack of sea ice.
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