Monthly Archives: July 2013

Baffin Bay polar bear status – waiting for the count

Here’s a quick summary of the status of Baffin Bay polar bears, a subpopulation I’ve not previously discussed in detail. Nothing especially earth-shattering here, except perhaps to wonder about the involvement of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a new helicopter survey of the region.

Baffin Bay (Fig. 1) is north of Davis Strait. It lies between western Greenland and Baffin Island in the eastern Arctic.

Unlike the other north/south neighbour-pair of Western/Southern Hudson Bay   (which I discussed previously), the sea ice history for Baffin Bay/Davis Strait is not as similar: Davis Strait bears have a much longer on-shore fast than Baffin Bay bears (see last post here). However, all four of these subpopulations have ‘seasonal sea ice’ – that is, the ice melts completely in late mid-to-late summer, forcing bears onshore for varying lengths of time until fall freeze-up.

Figure 1. The Baffin Bay subpopulation region lies north of Davis Strait (map on the left from Vongraven and Peacock 2011: Fig. 3) and management is shared between Canada (Nunavut) and Greenland. In total area, it covers 1.08 million km2 and its “suitable ice habitat in spring” (according to Taylor and Lee 1995) is 413,500 km,2 somewhat less than Davis Strait. The map on the right shows the sea ice extent at the end of March 2010 (NSIDC), the winter maximum.

Figure 1. The Baffin Bay subpopulation region lies north of Davis Strait (map on the left from Vongraven and Peacock 2011: Fig. 3) and management is shared between Canada (Nunavut) and Greenland. In total area, it covers 1.08 million km2 and its “suitable ice habitat in spring” (according to Taylor and Lee 1995) is 413,500 km2, somewhat less than Davis Strait. The map on the right shows the sea ice extent at the end of March 2010 (NSIDC), the winter maximum.

A peer-reviewed paper published last year (Rode et al. 2012) compared body condition vs. sea ice changes in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay (discussed here). But while that research contributed to an updated population estimate for Davis Strait (Peacock et al. 2013, discussed here), it did not do the same for Baffin Bay. This is likely because the body condition work in Baffin Bay was split between spring and fall, and it has already been determined that many Baffin Bay bears are offshore in the spring and not available for counting using shore-based methods.

That’s a shame, because the last population estimate was completed back in 1997 (Taylor et al. 2005) and it is now seriously out of date.

However, it appears the Government of Nunavut is currently in the process of surveying this region by helicopter, so a new population estimate should be available soon.

But this aspect of the survey might surprise you — a press release issued February 11, 2013 by WWF contained the following statement:

Results from the above-noted surveys will be completed and shared beginning in April 2013.

WWF made contributions of $82,000 to the Government of the Northwest Territories and $111,000 to the Government of Nunavut via Environment Canada, towards the total costs of these surveys. These funds were raised through the Arctic Home campaign from engaged Canadians and matched by The Coca-Cola Company.”  [my bold]

So, of the hundreds of millions the WWF pulls in from donations, they passed along less than $100,000 [$96,500 plus an equal contribution by Coca-Cola) to offset “the total costs of the survey.

We are not told what those total costs are, but I expect they run well over a million dollars for a multiyear/multi-region project like this, perhaps over two million. Which makes $96,500 rather a drop in the bucket. That might have paid for some of the jet fuel for the helicopters used for the survey, but probably not all of it.

Status details below.
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Baffin Bay-Davis Strait ice concentration comparison – why use the “summer mean”?

I’ve been in the process of looking at the status of polar bears in the Baffin Bay region, which lies to the north of Davis Strait (Fig. 1), but a related issue caught my attention that I think deserves discussion.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Note that Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay are all similar in that they become ice-free by early fall (the September minimum) or before.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Note that Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay are all similar in that they become ice-free by early fall (the September minimum) or even before.

Recall that in a recent post on the Beaufort Sea ice extent comparison offered by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) here, I commented:

What puzzled me was why they featured only the last 7 years when satellite data go back to at least 1979. Is there something in that data they don’t want us to see?”

Something similar struck me about the analysis of sea ice in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait conducted by polar bear researchers Karyn Rode and colleagues (Rode et al. 2012). In their comparison of body condition (relative fatness) of bears in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay (see previous post here), they introduced an entirely new sea ice metric – “mean daily summer sea ice concentration,” defined as the mean of values between May 15 and October 15 each year based on ice charts provided by the Canadian Ice Service.

Why invent a metric that has never been used (as far as I know) for analysis of polar bear health, survival or success?

Why not use breakup dates, as has been done for decades for subpopulations in Hudson Bay (e.g. Cherry et al. 2013), where the ice also disappears in late summer?

Is there something in the ice data for Baffin Bay and Davis Strait that Rode and colleagues don’t want us to see?

Since I had already made a composite of Cryosphere Today ice maps at July 12 for my discussion of the Chukchi/Beaufort NSIDC analysis mentioned above, it was relatively easy to look at what was going on in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait on that date in mid-summer. Keep in mind that ice extent and concentration at July 12 records the state of polar bear habitat prior to the late summer decline in sea ice that occurs every year.

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Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation status, farthest south of all polar bears

“The Arctic” is a bit hard to define. While the Arctic Circle works as a good boundary for some purposes and the 100C isotherm for July for others, neither work for polar bears because several subpopulations live well south of these limits (Fig. 1).

In the east, Western Hudson Bay, Southern Hudson Bay and Davis Strait are all located well south of the Arctic Circle and the first two (and half of Davis Strait) are beyond the 100C July isotherm as well. In the western Arctic, the Chukchi Sea subpopulation is within the 100C July isotherm but at least half of its bears reside south of the Arctic Circle (Fig. 1) in the Bering Sea (see previous post here).

Unique amongst all of these is Southern Hudson Bay – all of its polar bears make maternity dens and/or spend the summer south of 600N.

Southern Hudson Bay (SH) bears live in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, while Western Hudson Bay (WH) bears reside in Manitoba and Nunavut. The two groups mix over the winter but appear to spend the summer/fall in their respective regions (Stirling et al. 2004). [See previous posts on Western Hudson Bay bears here, here, and here]

“Further south” in the Arctic usually means warmer, with open water present more weeks every summer, sea ice for fewer weeks over the winter. So, shouldn’t the bears of Southern Hudson Bay be already suffering more harm from global warming than virtually all other subpopulations, including those in Western Hudson Bay?

After all, Western Hudson Bay bears appear to have experienced a statistically significant decline in numbers, among other effects (Regehr et al. 2007; Stirling and Derocher 2012) — surely Southern Hudson Bay bears are doing worse?

You’d think so, but they aren’t.

Figure 1. Boundary limits for “the Arctic” (top map) such as the Arctic Circle (dashed line) or the 100C isotherm for July (solid red line) would not include several polar bear subpopulations that live south of these.

Figure 1. Boundary limits for “the Arctic” (top map) such as the Arctic Circle (dashed line) or the 100C isotherm for July (solid red line) would not include several polar bear subpopulations that live south of these.

UPDATED October 28, 2014: Reference added, Obbard et al. 2013 (aerial survey results).
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Chukchi-Beaufort ice extent comparison – why feature only the last 7 years?

The most recent issue of Arctic Sea Ice News provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) – the official US keeper of sea ice data – (July 17, 2013) included an interesting graph of sea ice extent in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas at July 12.

They present the data for 2007 to 2013, compared to the new 30 year average1, and note that the Beaufort Sea had “the most extensive ice cover seen there in the last seven summers.” It is also clear from their graph that the 2013 extent was virtually identical to the average in both regions (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Graph of sea ice extent at July 12 each year from 2007 to 2013 from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, NSIDC. “Climatology” (last set of bars) is the 30 year average (1981-2010) extent at this date.1 In 2013, the Beaufort Sea had “the most extensive ice cover seen there in the last seven summers” (NSIDC). It is also clear from the graph that the 2013 extent was virtually identical to the 30-year average. Map from Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Graph of sea ice extent at July 12 each year from 2007 to 2013 from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, NSIDC. “Climatology” (last set of bars) is the 30 year average (1981-2010) extent at this date.1 It is clear from the graph that the 2013 extent was virtually identical to the 30-year average. Map from Wikipedia.

What puzzled me was why they featured only the last 7 years when satellite data go back to at least 1979. Is there something in that data they don’t want us to see?

There is no similar data in graph form available that I could find but there is the wonderful comparative sea ice mapping tool provided by Cryosphere Today, operated by the University of Illinois.

So, in the absence of numerical data to compare to the Fig. 1 graph, I chose visual data to ask the question: what could there be about the long-term record of Chukchi/Beaufort sea ice data that the NSIDC might not want us to know?

The ice coverage at mid-summer (July 12) provides a snapshot of what sea ice  conditions are like for polar bears before the summer melt season gets into full swing, so this historical perspective is quite revealing. [See previous posts here, here, and here for more on Chukchi/Beaufort polar bears.]
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Global population of polar bears has increased by 2,650-5,700 since 2001

The official population estimates generated by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) give the impression that the global total of polar bears has not changed appreciably since 2001:

2001 PBSG report                  21,500-25,000

2005 PBSG report                  20,000-25,000

2009 PBSG report                  20,000-25,000

2013 PBSG website                20,000-25,000

2015 IUCN Red List              22,000-31,000 [see latest update note]

However, some accounting changes were done between 2001 and 2009 (the latest report available) that mean a net increase in numbers had to have taken place (see summary map below and previous post here. Note this is a different issue than the misleading PBSG website graphic discussed here).

And while it is true that population “estimates” are just that — rather broad estimates rather than precise counts — it is also true that nowhere do the PBSG explain how these dropped figures and other adjustments were accounted for in the estimated totals. 

The simple details of these changes are laid out below, in as few words as I could manage, to help you understand how this was done and the magnitude of the effect. It’s a short read — see what you think.

UPDATE 15 May 2016: In late November 2015, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species published a new assessment for polar bears that estimated the global population at 22,000-31,000 and stated the trend was ‘Unknown’. See details here and here – which includes links to the official report and the press release. Sorry for the delay in updating this post.

UPDATE 31 May 2015: See the latest population numbers here.

UPDATE 5 December 2014: Links to more recent posts relevant to this issue added below. [including this one: Status of Canadian polar bear populations has been changed – more good news October 28, 2014

UPDATE February 14, 2014a new status table has been released, see new post here 

UPDATE February 18, 2014 — see graphs of the 1981-2013 estimates here.

Polar bear subpopulations as defined by the PBSG: Top, in the 2001 report; Bottom, 2009 report. Map courtesy PBSG, with a few labels added and the subpopulations identified where “accounting” changes or adjustments to estimates took place.SB, Southern Beaufort; NB, Northern Beaufort; VM, Viscount Melville; MC, M’Clintock Channel; LS, Lancaster Sound; GB, Gulf of Boothia; NW, Norwegian Bay; KB, Kane Basin; WH, Western Hudson Bay. Click to enlarge.

Polar bear subpopulations as defined by the PBSG: Top, in the 2001 report; Bottom, 2009 report. Map courtesy PBSG, with a few labels added and the subpopulations identified where “accounting” changes or adjustments to estimates took place.
SB, Southern Beaufort; NB, Northern Beaufort; VM, Viscount Melville; MC, M’Clintock Channel; LS, Lancaster Sound; GB, Gulf of Boothia; NW, Norwegian Bay; KB, Kane Basin; WH, Western Hudson Bay. Click to enlarge.

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Chukchi/Bering Sea ringed seals doing better despite declines in ice and snow: new study

Ringed seal pup in snow cave

Previously, I highlighted new research results that showed, contrary to expectations, polar bears in the Chukchi Sea subpopulation are doing better – despite declines in extent of September sea ice – since the 1970s. So it might not come as much of a surprise to find that the same is true for the primary prey of polar bears in the Chukchi and Bering Seas, Arctic ringed seals (Phoca hispida hispida).

Surprisingly, less than 6 months after Arctic ringed seals were placed on the American list of “threatened” species (under the ESA, see previous post here), actual research in Alaska has shown that declines in sea ice have proven better for ringed seals, not worse.

At a presentation given at the Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium in March (Anchorage, Alaska) [program and links to pdfs here] Justin Crawford, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) presented the results of ringed seal research conducted by himself and fellow ADF&G biologist Lori Quakenbush in the Chukchi and Bering Seas (posted online by the event organizers, see references below).

As for polar bears, the Crawford and Quakenbush presentation provides some very interesting details on the status of Chukchi and Bering Sea ringed seals over the last 40 years, and contains some mighty “inconvenient” conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

I’ve summarized these details and conclusions below in point form, with a map.
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Chukchi polar bear status contradicts the “message” – new details

Previously, I summarized preliminary results of polar bear research in the Chukchi Sea undertaken between 2008 and 2011 by US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr and US Geological Survey researcher Karyn Rode. At the time, a peer-reviewed paper on this study was promised shortly.

It now appears this paper is indeed on the way. I’m sure of that because a few weeks ago, I came across a conference presentation given by Karyn Rode that is a summary of the upcoming Chukchi research paper. The title of both presentation and ‘in review’ paper is:

“Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations.

Rode’s slide presentation (given at the annual Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium at the end of March, in Anchorage, Alaska) was posted online by the symposium organizers. It provides some very interesting details on the status of Chukchi Sea bears compared to bears in the Southern Beaufort, and contains some mighty “inconvenient” conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

I’ve summarized these details and conclusions below in point form, below the maps.

Figure 1. Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (from Wikipedia), upper. ‘Chukchi Sea’ polar bears are shared between the USA and Russia; ‘Southern Beaufort’ bears are shared between the US and Canada, lower (from PBSG, with labels added). Pink dots are the subpopulations featured in the Rode et al. presentation and upcoming paper.

Figure 1. Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (from Wikipedia), upper. ‘Chukchi Sea’ polar bears are shared between the USA and Russia; ‘Southern Beaufort’ bears are shared between the US and Canada, lower (from PBSG, with labels added). Pink dots are the subpopulations featured in the Rode et al. presentation and upcoming paper.

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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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Guest post: How ‘science’ counts bears

This essay by Dr. Jim Steele, professor emeritus, San Francisco State University, is reblogged from a July 3 2013 post at WUWT post, with Dr. Steele’s permission. I am not a field biologist and have never done a mark-recapture study but Dr. Steele has. His perspective on the way polar bear biologists count bears and estimate survival in the Southern Beaufort is a perfect companion to yesterday’s post, a related post that I’ll put up later this week, and this one from December, among others. I’ve added links to the references cited in this essay where they are available, as is my custom. See the original post for Jim’s responses to comments and questions.

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Guest post by Jim Steele   “How ‘science’ counts bears”

The Inuit claim “it is the time of the most polar bears.” By synthesizing their community’s observations they have demonstrated a greater accuracy counting Bowhead whales and polar bears than the models of credentialed scientists. To estimate correctly, it takes a village. In contrast the “mark and recapture” study, which claimed the polar bears along South Beaufort Sea were victims of catastrophic global warming and threatened with extinction, relied on the subjective decisions of a handful of modelers.

In mark and recapture studies, the estimate of population abundance is skewed by the estimate of survival. For example, acknowledging the great uncertainty in his calculations of survival, in his earlier studies polar beat expert Steven Amstrup reported three different population estimates for bears along the South Beaufort Sea. If he assumed the adult bears had an 82% chance of surviving into the next year, the models calculated there were 1301 bears. If survivorship was 88%, the abundance climbed to 1776 bears. If he estimated survivorship at a more robust 94%, then polar bear abundance climbed to 2490.1 Thus depending on estimated survival rates, a mark-and-recapture study may conclude that the population has doubled, or that it has suddenly crashed.

Here are the simplified basics of estimating survival.

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Did polar bear numbers in E. Beaufort fluctuate each decade due to thick ice years?

Now that we have a plausible explanation (previous post here) for why shorefast ice in the Eastern Beaufort got too thick for ringed seals every ten years or so, it’s time to talk about the effect that this recurring sea ice phenomenon might have had on polar bear population numbers.

We know from the reports of polar bear biologists that without fat young seals to eat in the spring, some bears in those thick-ice springs came close to starving and many mothers lost all or most of their cubs (Amstrup et al. 2006; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling et al. 2008). This presumably had some impact on population numbers – the question is: how bad was it?

None of the reports on the effects of the thick ice have given us any indication of how many polar bears might have died or lost their cubs. However, Ian Stirling and colleagues (Stirling et al. 2011) recently published a paper on the Northern Beaufort subpopulation that looked, at first glance, to have done just that.

You have to keep in mind that the geographic area in question – the Eastern Beaufort – is not an official polar bear subpopulation region – at least, not any more. As Fig. 1 below shows, the Eastern Beaufort was once its own, strictly Canadian region (or at least, a strictly Canadian research region) see previous post here), but management is now shared between two subpopulations and managed by two governments (Canada and the USA). About half of the bears of the “Eastern Beaufort” reside in the ‘Northern Beaufort’ subpopulation and the other half live in the ‘Southern Beaufort’ subpopulation.

Figure 1. Re-jigging of polar bear subpopulations now splits what used to be an entirely Canadian segment, called the “Eastern Beaufort” (map on the left, from Stirling and Lunn 1997), into “Southern Beaufort” (shared with the USA) and “Northern Beaufort,” with the Canada-USA border at 141 W (map on the right, from Stirling et al. 2011). Labels added for clarity. Most of the polar bears sampled for the Stirling et al. paper were captured along the west and south coasts of Banks Island, although a few were captured north of Banks Island in M’Clure Strait and in Amundsen Gulf to the southeast.

Figure 1. Re-jigging of polar bear subpopulations now splits what used to be an entirely a Canadian research segment, called the “Eastern Beaufort” (map on the left, from Stirling and Lunn 1997), into management regions called “Southern Beaufort” (shared with the USA) and “Northern Beaufort,” with the Canada-USA border at 141 W (map on the right, from Stirling et al. 2011, Fig. 1). Labels added. Most of the polar bears sampled for the Stirling et al. paper were captured along the west and south coasts of Banks Island, although a few were captured in M’Clure Strait and in Amundsen Gulf.

Despite the changing boundaries, ringed seals and polar bears in the Eastern Beaufort have been the focus of research since the early 1970s. In part, this is because the region has been targeted for oil exploration and studies on both species have been part of the associated ecological impact assessments (Stirling et al. 1993).

Getting back to the point, did Stirling et al. 2011 find fluctuations in polar bear numbers in the Northern Beaufort that might reflect the periodic bouts of thick spring ice in the Eastern Beaufort? Unfortunately, no — the data lack necessary precision. You’ll see why, I think, from the summary below.  Continue reading