Monthly Archives: September 2013

Polar bears at Kaktovik, Alaska not stranded due to retreating ice

“I’ve lived here all my life and there are more bears every year. I read stories about polar bears being on the brink of extinction because of global warming, look out of my window and start to laugh.” Tori Sims, Kaktovik (Mail on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2013).

As you can see, Kaktovik is in the news again. This tiny community sits on the edge of the Beaufort Sea, on Barter Island on the North Slope of Alaska (Fig. 1). It lies within the Southern Beaufort polar bear subpopulation, which has been classified as “declining” by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (Obbard et al. 2010).

The determination of “declining” was based on a small dip in population numbers between 2001 and 2006 (not statistically significant), plus a decline in body size and condition, and smaller litter sizes documented between 1986 and 2006 (Rode et al. 2010). A new population survey is underway.

Figure 1. Kaktovik, Alaska, from Google maps.

Figure 1. Kaktovik, Alaska, from Google maps. Click to enlarge.

There have been suggestions that bears become “stranded” along the Alaska coast near Kaktovik because of retreating sea ice, and that more bears present in this area in recent years are an indication that they are in trouble due to global warming.

I’ve compiled some quotes, maps, and links to stories, photos and videos about Kaktovik polar bears to show that this claim is false.

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What about the polar bears? Disconnect between predictions and observations

With all the talk this week about future climate – the global warming imagined by IPCC crystal ball models, that is – the focus for many is rightly on the gulf between predictions and observations that have taken place so far. This follows on reminders a few weeks ago of the many failed predictions that we would have seen an “ice-free Arctic” by now.

[by “ice-free” they mean “nearly ice-free,” or “when ice coverage is less than 1 million square kilometers, or about 386,000 square miles.”]

But what about the polar bears? Is there a similar disconnect between predictions and observations for polar bear survival? Yes, indeed.

Many Arctic biologists insist that polar bears are not just threatened by future global warming and a “melting ice cap.” They contend polar bears are already being harmed by declines in summer sea ice coverage, or will be shortly.

The problem is, the results of scientific studies show otherwise. Virtually all of the evidence generated by polar bear researchers shows that polar bears are not being harmed by declines in summer sea ice, and in some cases, they are doing very well indeed. In other words, they are not responding as expected.

A few weeks ago, I summarized these studies, which reveal that:

Less summer ice ≠ few bears (evidence from Davis Strait; S. Hudson Bay; Barents Sea; S. Beaufort; W. Hudson Bay).

Less summer ice ≠ “skinnier” bears (evidence from Chukchi Sea; S. Hudson Bay).

“Skinnier” bears ≠ fewer bears (evidence from S. Hudson Bay; S. Beaufort; Davis Strait).

Less summer ice ≠  lower cub survival (evidence from S. Hudson Bay; Chukchi Sea).

Less summer ice ≠ more cannibalism & hybridization

Have a look if you missed it (August 18, 2013, with pdf copies to download), “Polar bears have not been harmed by sea ice declines in summer – the evidence.”

[Update Sunday Sept 29 2013: these two stories (on the temperature pause and polar bears thriving (in which I get a mention), just out in the Mail on Sunday (UK)]

Mail on Sunday_Temp pause and polar bears_Sept 29 2013

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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Polar Bear Specialist Group meeting postponed until 2014

[Update October 14, 2013: correction regarding Davis Strait population estimate, noted below]

I heard via the grapevine that the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) meeting, tentatively slated to be held this July (Obbard et al. 2010), has been postponed until 2014. [That will be the 16th Working Meeting, as they are called]

Word has it that shifting the meeting forward will allow the group time to put together a new population estimate that will incorporate recent survey results.

So which subpopulations are slated to be updated?

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.

Polar bear subpopulations defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Courtesy the PBSG.

As far as I can determine, there are at least two that haven’t quite been finished: Baffin Bay and Southern Beaufort. The Baffin Bay survey was supposed to be completed this spring, so the numbers just need to be crunched. Southern Beaufort has a survey in progress, planned to continue through the fall of 2013.

Here are some comments on the 2012 Southern Beaufort field season (USFWS Newletter 2013:17):

“The number of polar bears observed in 2012 was high relative to similar surveys conducted over the past decade. During August and September surveys, the majority of bears were observed east of Prudhoe Bay, primarily near Kaktovik. Body condition appeared relatively normal for this time of year with most bears reported to be in average condition.” [my bold] [see previous post here re: Kaktovik bears]

There are new counts for Foxe Basin (estimated at ~2,580 bears, similar to the early 1990s estimate of ~2,200; Stapleton, Peacock and Garshelis 2012) and Western Hudson Bay (estimated at ~1,000 bears, similar to the 2004 estimate of ~935; Stapleton, Atkinson et al. 2012) based on aerial surveys. These numbers have not yet been incorporated into the global total, although the studies suggest both of those populations have been stable since the last survey.

CBC News (June 26, 2012):

“A study has found that the polar bear population in the Foxe Basin region of Nunavut is stable and the bears are in good health.

The territorial government did an aerial survey of the bear population in 2009 and 2010. The survey results show the population is about the same size as it was in 1990 – about 2,580 bears.” [my bold]

There is also the new population estimate for Davis Strait (Peacock et al. 2013) that needs to be incorporated into the global total – in this case, there has been an increase from the previous estimate (up from ~1,400 to ~2,158). [corrected Oct. 14 2013] The population increase for Davis Strait has already been incorporated into the current global estimate. The new numbers were available by 2009 (the time of the last PBSG meeting) but the peer-reviewed publications (with all of the pertinent details) were not produced until recently (2012-2013, discussed here and here).
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How and why great news about Chukchi polar bears has been suppressed

A new peer-reviewed report (Rode et al. 2014 [in print] 2013, accepted), released last month (announced here), documents the fact that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea are doing better than virtually any other population studied, despite significant losses in summer sea ice over the last two decades – even though the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) said this population was declining (Obbard et al. 2010).

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

Rather than this good news being shouted far and wide, what we’ve seen so far is a mere whisper. The strategy for suppressing the information appears to have several parts: make it hard to find; don’t actively publicize it; down-play the spectacularly good nature of the news; minimize how wrong they were; keep the focus on the future.

Something similar happened with the newly-published paper on Davis Strait bears (Peacock et al. 2013, discussed here and here) but the news there wasn’t quite so shockingly different from expected. The suppression of good news stands in marked contrast to anything with a hint of bad news, which gets reported around the world — for example, Andrew Derocher and colleagues and their prepare now to save polar bears” policy paper in February, 2013.

US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr, co-investigator of the Chukchi study and co-author of the newly-published report, wrote an announcement about the paper. It wasn’t a real press release, since it was not actually sent to media outlets. It was a statement, with a brief summary of the paper, posted on a regional US Fish & Wildlife website, with no mention of lead author Karyn Rode. Not surprisingly, lack of active promotion = no media coverage.

The posted announcement also down-played how well the Chukchi bears are doing. In fact, the news documented in the paper is much better than any of them let on: Chukchi polar bears are doing better than virtually all other populations studied.

But Regehr also had to do some damage control to counter the evidence this paper contains of how wrong they had all been — not only about the Chukchi population today but about their predictions for polar bears in the future.

After all, the computer models used to predict a dire future for polar bears combined the Chukchi Sea with the Southern Beaufort, as having similar ice habitats (“ice ecoregions”). The published paper and Regehr’s statement now say these two regions are very different and that polar bear response to loss of sea ice is “complex” rather than a simple matter of less summer ice = harm to polar bears. Regehr goes on to say that polar bear scientists expected this would happen. I call total BS on this one, which I explain in full later (with a map).

Finally, Regehr’s statement emphasizes that good news for 1 subpopulation out of 19 today should not be celebrated because the overall future for polar bears — prophesied by computerized crystal balls — is bleak. Focus on the future, they say. Did they forget that for years they’ve been telling us that polar bears are already being harmed and that this foreshadows what’s to come? Now we have the results of yet another peer-reviewed study showing bears not being harmed by declines in summer ice (see the full list here).

So, in the end, all of this double-talk and contradiction is not just about suppressing this particular paper. There’s much more at stake.

The Rode et al. Chukchi paper is strong evidence that their predictions of a grim future for polar bears – based on theoretical responses to summer sea ice declines that should already be apparent – have been refuted by their own studies. It’s no wonder they want to keep the media away from this story.

Details below.  [Update September 11, 2013: another news outlet picks up the story, see Point 2 below]

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: August map

Here is the follow-up I promised to my post on the July track map for 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.

The track map for August was posted on the USGS website on September 4th and is copied here below (Figure 1). The ice moved a bit further offshore during August but not nearly as far as it did in 2012. The ten bears from July were down to eight – their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died (the researchers don’t say which).

 Figure 1. “Movements of 8 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of August, 2013. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 8 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters [i.e., all are females]. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with Ice Analysis charts from 26 August, 2013. Ice Analysis charts are made available by the National Ice Center. The land cover is made available by Natural Earth. Click on the above image to enlarge.”[Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end August), while the other end of the string is their position in early August. The yellow dot is behind the purple dot, on shore; two of the bears present in July (see Fig. 2 below) are no longer being tracked - their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died. The researchers don’t say.]


Figure 1. “Movements of 8 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of August, 2013. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 8 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters [i.e., all are females]. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with Ice Analysis charts from 26 August, 2013. Ice Analysis charts are made available by the National Ice Center. The land cover is made available by Natural Earth. Click on the above image to enlarge.” [Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end August), while the other end of the string is their position in early August. The yellow dot is behind the purple dot, on shore; two of the bears present in July (see Fig. 2 below) are no longer being tracked – their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died. The researchers don’t say.]

So, of the eight polar bears still being followed by USGS researchers in August, three were on shore and five were on the ice. Only time will tell if the three females on shore are pregnant and preparing maternity dens for the winter, but this seems the likely reason they are not on the ice with the others.

I’ll post the track map for September when it is available in early October at the USGS website.

The map for July 2013 is below, for comparison: Continue reading