Monthly Archives: June 2013

Good news for polar bears: no early breakup of W. Hudson Bay sea ice this year

The sea ice chart provided by the Canadian Ice Service (Fig. 1 below) shows a lot of ice still present in Hudson Bay today, the last day of June, 2013.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent in Canada, June 30, 2013. From the Canadian Ice Service.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent in Canada, June 30, 2013. From the Canadian Ice Service.

This means we have long passed the point when breakup of the sea ice in Western Hudson Bay (30% ice concentration) could be considered ‘early.’ See Table 1 below for previous breakup dates (1991-2009) and previous post here for more details.

 Table 1. Breakup dates calculated for Western Hudson Bay, 1991-2009, using a new method described by Cherry et al. (in press). More details in previous post here.


Table 1. Breakup dates calculated for Western Hudson Bay, 1991-2009, using the new method described by Cherry et al. (2013, in press). More details in previous post here.

Since most polar bears don’t leave the ice until almost a month after the official breakup date is declared, it means that even if breakup for Western Hudson Bay occurs within the next few days, most polar bears would not start their summer fast until the beginning of August.

Regardless of when polar bear biologists decide that breakup has occurred, one thing is now clear — this will not be an early breakup year for Western Hudson Bay. That’s good news for polar bears.

And what about the rest of the Arctic? You’ll see from Fig. 2 below that as of yesterday (June 29), there was still ice present in each of the 19 polar bear subpopulation regions — more good news for polar bears.

Figure 2. Sea ice extent worldwide vs. polar bear subpopulations at June 29, 2013. On this date, there was still sea ice present in every one of the 19 subpopulation regions. Map on the left from US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC “MASIE”) here; map on the right from the Polar Bear Specialist Group, with labels added. Click to enlarge

Figure 2. Sea ice extent worldwide vs. polar bear subpopulations at June 29, 2013. On this date, there was still sea ice present in every one of the 19 subpopulation regions. Map on the left from US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC “MASIE”) here; map on the right from the Polar Bear Specialist Group, with labels added. Click to enlarge

References
Cherry, S.G., Derocher, A.E., Thiemann, G.W., Lunn, N.J. 2013. Migration phenology and seasonal fidelity of an Arctic marine predator in relation to sea ice dynamics. Journal of Animal Ecology 82(4):912-921.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2656.12050/abstract

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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Sea ice, beluga whales, and polar bear densities in the Gulf of Boothia

As I discussed in my last post, the Gulf of Boothia subpopulation in the central Canadian Arctic has the highest density of polar bears anywhere in the world. The question is, why?

For example, is the sea ice in the Gulf of Boothia region so markedly different from its nearest subpopulation-neighbor, M’Clintock Channel (Fig. 1), that it accounts for the wide disparity in polar bear densities between the two? The differences, remember, are dramatic: Gulf of Boothia, 18.3 bears per 1000 km2 vs. M’Clintock Channel, 1.9. And while M’Clintock Channel may be low in part due to recent over-harvests (see footnote 1), even the density before over-harvests occurred in M’Clintock Channel were only 4.7, compared to 10.4 bears per 1000 km2 in Gulf of Boothia (see Table 1 in previous post).

Today, I’ll take a look at sea ice and ringed seal habitat in the Gulf of Boothia and M’Clintock Channel, as well as information from a study on polar bear diets, which together shine some light on why the Gulf of Boothia is such a great place for polar bears.

Figure 1. Map showing the side-by-side relationship of M’Clintock Channel and the Gulf of Boothia. From Barber and Iacozza (2004: Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Map showing the side-by-side relationship of M’Clintock Channel and the Gulf of Boothia. From Barber and Iacozza (2004: Fig. 1).

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Gulf of Boothia, unheralded Arctic utopia, has the highest density of polar bears worldwide

The issue of polar bear population density (# of bears per 1000 km2) came up a few posts ago, during my discussion of the new Davis Strait population study by Lily Peacock and colleagues (here). Since the various polar bear subpopulations across the Arctic are so different in size, calculating the density of bears in the various regions generates an interesting metric of how well the regional populations are doing relative to each other.

Almost 20 years ago, Taylor and Lee (1995) did just that: they determined the density of polar bears in the various Canadian subpopulations, as of the 1990s. Surprisingly, the ‘leader’ among those, by a wide margin, was one of the smallest in geographic area: the Gulf of Boothia. Located in the central Canadian Arctic (see Figs. 1 and 2 below), in the 1990s, tiny Gulf of Boothia supported a density of 10.4 polar bears per 1000 km2, the highest density of all regions examined.

 Figure 1. The Gulf of Boothia (circled) is right in the middle of the Canadian Arctic. In terms of geographic area, it is one of the smallest of all 19 subpopulations worldwide: at only 170,000 km2, only the Norwegian Bay and Kane Basin subpopulation regions, also in Canada (just to the north of Gulf of Boothia), are smaller at 150,000 and 155,000 km2 respectively (Vongraven and Peacock 2011). The Gulf of Boothia supports the highest density of polar bears known.Modified from map of polar bear protected areas provided by Environment Canada.


Figure 1. The Gulf of Boothia (circled) is right in the middle of the Canadian Arctic. In terms of geographic area, it is one of the smallest of all 19 subpopulations worldwide: at only 170,000 km2, only the Norwegian Bay and Kane Basin subpopulation regions, also in Canada (just to the north of Gulf of Boothia), are smaller at 150,000 and 155,000 km2 respectively (Vongraven and Peacock 2011). The Gulf of Boothia supports the highest density of polar bears known. Modified from the map of polar bear protected areas provided by Environment Canada.

But this density value for Gulf of Boothia was based on the 1986 population estimate of 900 bears – what is the most current figure?

For that, we need an updated population assessment. That was done in 2000 and it generated an estimate of 1,592 ± 361 bears (Taylor et al. 2009).

Taylor et al. (2009:791) said this about their assessment:

Our results suggest population size had increased steadily under a harvest regimen of approximately 40 bears/yrand added, “Barber and Iacozza (2004) found no trends in Gulf of Boothia sea ice conditions or ringed seal habitat suitability indices in the interval 1980-2000.

In other words, despite there being no trend in either sea ice conditions or habitat for seals – and a yearly harvest of 40 bears – polar bear numbers in the Gulf of Boothia increased significantly (by almost 700 bears) during the twenty years between 1980 and 2000. Even if the 1986 estimate of approximately 900 bears was somewhat less accurate than the more recent one, the fact that tiny Gulf of Boothia can support 1,592 bears is surely a remarkable feat.

Using this new population estimate and the same area of ‘available habitat’ used by Taylor and Lee in 1995, I calculated the most recent density at a spectacular 18.3 bears per 1000 km2! [note this is exactly what Peacock et al (2013) did to get their density value of 5.1 bears/1000 km2, discussed here.] But I didn’t update just Gulf of Boothia, I did them all.

The updated density values for Gulf of Boothia and several other Canadian subpopulations are listed in Table 1 below. Note that aside from Davis Strait, as far as I know these density figures have not been published elsewhere: you’re seeing them here for the first time.

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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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Davis Strait polar bears again: body condition declined while population increased

This is a short follow-up to my last post on Davis Strait polar bears.

Today I’ll highlight a paper published last year (Rode et al. 2012) that had three of the same co-authors as the Peacock et al. (2012) paper I discussed on Monday – Lily Peacock, Mitch Taylor, and Ian Stirling contributed to both papers. Rode et al. (2012) deals with the issue of body condition (relative degree of fatness) in polar bears vs. changing levels of sea ice over time, and if you’ll pardon the pun, adds even more weight to the conclusion that declines in summer sea ice do not necessarily spell the disaster for polar bears we have been told is inevitable.

A polar bear near Thule, NW Greenland. Note the decidedly chubby back end on this bear, who looks well prepared for winter. Photo by Robin Davies. [details at my Quote Archive, Featured Quote #6]

A polar bear in the summer of 2012 near Thule, NW Greenland (part of the Baffin Bay subpopulation). Note the decidedly chubby back end on this bear, who looks well prepared for winter. Photo by Robin Davies.
[details at my Quote Archive, Featured Quote #6]

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Signs that Davis Strait polar bears are at carrying capacity

Exciting news about polar bears in eastern Canada: the peer-reviewed paper on the Davis Strait subpopulation study has finally been published (Peacock et al. 2013). It concludes that despite sea ice having declined since the 1970s, polar bear numbers in Davis Strait have not only increased to a greater density (bears per 1,000 km2) than other seasonal-ice subpopulations (like Western Hudson Bay), but it may now have reached its ‘carrying capacity.’

This is great news. But where is the shouting from the roof-tops? This peer-reviewed paper (with its juicy details of method and analysis results), considered by some to be the only legitimate format for communicating science, was published February 19, 2013. No press release was issued that I could find and consequently, there was no news coverage. Funny, that.

There was a bit of shouting back in 2007 when the study ended and the preliminary population count was released – polar bear biologist Mitch Taylor is quoted in the Telegraph (March 9 2007) as saying:

“There aren’t just a few more bears. There are a hell of a lot more bears.”

There was also a CBC news item in January 2007 and a Nunatsiaq|Online report in October 2009 when the official government report was completed. But these were all based on preliminary information and focused on the population increase only.

This new paper (Peacock et al. 2013) reveals that the story in Davis Strait is about more than simple population growth. Small wonder no one is drawing attention to it. Continue reading