Monthly Archives: October 2013

Polar bear cannibalism and sea ice, the spring of 1976

Remember Ian Stirling’s claim that late freeze up in Western Hudson Bay in 2009 was forcing polar bears to resort to cannibalism (here and here), with gut-wrenching images and video provided for the media? Or Steve Amstrup’s claim for a similar phenomenon in the Southern Beaufort in 2004?

I pointed out that Stirling’s claim was way overblown and that Amstrup’s incidents were almost certainly the result of heavy ice in the spring (not low ice in summer), similar to the heavy ice conditions and polar bear starvation documented in the same region back in 1974-1976.

It turns out that the heavy ice conditions documented in the Eastern Beaufort in the mid-1970s had much broader effects on polar bears and ringed seals than has been appreciated.
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Lancaster Sound – a rarely-mentioned region with a large polar bear population

The polar bear subpopulation designated as Lancaster Sound lies at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage in the Canadian High Arctic (Fig.1). We rarely hear about it but this region has one of the largest polar bear populations anywhere in the Arctic – only the Barents Sea and Foxe Basin have higher estimated population sizes.

Figure 1. Lancaster Sound, magenta. Map courtesy Polar Bear Specialist Group, additional labels added.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations with Lancaster Sound marked. Map courtesy IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, additional labels added.

Lancaster Sound includes the communities of Arctic Bay on northwestern Baffin Island and Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island. Devon Island, which lies on the northern boundary, has no permanent communities, although two research stations are present (see here and here). A more detailed map showing the exact boundaries is available in Vongraven and Peacock (2011).

The eastern portion of Lancaster Sound is generally clear of ice by late summer (hence the Northwest Passage) but the western third of the region not only retains pack ice later in the season but some multiyear ice remains throughout the year.

The proximity of Lancaster Sound to Baffin Bay and the eastern Northwest Passage (Fig.2) undoubtedly exposed polar bears there to hunting by European whalers during the 1800s and early 1900s (see previous post here, especially Fig. 5), from which the population appears to have recovered.

On the other hand, the proximity of Lancaster Sound to oil and gas reserves further north in the High Arctic generated much-needed funds for polar bear biologists in the mid-to-late 1970s to collect essential baseline data for the entire region (Schweinsburg et al. 1982; Stirling et al. 1979, 1984; Stirling and Latour 1978).

Figure 2. The main Northwest Passage route starts at Lancaster Sound and runs east through Parry Channel because these waterways routinely clear of ice in late summer. The approximate boundary of the Lancaster Sound polar bear subpopulation (area ~490,000 km2) is marked in yellow; POW is Prince of Wales Island. Map from Wikipedia, labels added.

Figure 2. The main Northwest Passage route starts at Lancaster Sound and runs east through Parry Channel because these waterways routinely clear of ice in late summer. The approximate boundary of the Lancaster Sound polar bear subpopulation is marked in yellow; POW is Prince of Wales Island. Map from Wikipedia, labels added. Click to enlarge.

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September sea ice ballyhoo and why it doesn’t matter to polar bears

The end of September sea ice summary from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) finally became available late last week (October 3, “A better year for the cryosphere”).

The summary figure NSIDC provides are the average ice extent for the month (not the maximum achieved at the end of the month), which are compared to previous years.

[There has been considerable ice growth since the end of September (updated daily here].

Here is why the September extent doesn’t matter to polar bears: it is the extent in June that is important to polar bear survival. June is the end of the critical spring feeding period for polar bears (see previous post here) – healthy bears eat more seals over a shorter period of time from March to June than any other time of year. After the end of June, most bears have enough fat to survive a fast of 4 months or more.

In contrast to September – when many bears are taking a time-out on shore – ice extent for June over the last 30 years or so provided an extensive hunting platform for polar bears throughout the Arctic. To show you how extensive, I’ve constructed a composite of ice maps from selected years (Fig.1, below).

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: September map

Here is the follow-up 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 (also available at the USGS website here).

The track map for September was posted on the USGS website on October 17 (delayed due to the US government shutdown) and is copied here below (Figure 1). The ice rebounded during the second half of the month (after the annual minimum was reached on September 13). 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 September, 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 September), while the other end of the string is their position in early September, indicating that the ice is now moving towards the shore. The pink dot present in August is almost entirely obscured by the purple dot, on shore in Alaska and the light brown dot is ashore on Banks Island, centre right of the map; 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.] Click to enlarge

Figure 1. Original caption: “Movements of 8 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of September, 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 September), while the other end of the string is their position in early September, indicating that the ice is now moving towards the shore. The pink dot present in August is almost entirely obscured by the purple dot, which is overlapping the yellow dot on shore in Alaska; also, the light brown dot is on Banks Island, far right.]

It appears that of the eight polar bears still being followed by USGS researchers in September, four are on shore and four are still on the ice. Only time will tell if the four 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.

One very interesting point worth noting:
the one bear (light brown) captured onshore in the Southern Beaufort subpopulation region in the spring of 2013, has moved into the Northern Beaufort subpopulation region, on Banks Island (see map here), and may be denning there. This inter-subpopulation movement is relatively uncommon.

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

Barents Sea polar bear status and sea ice declines

So far, I’ve not discussed the Barents Sea subpopulation in very much detail, except in comparison to other groups. For example, the Barents is considered to be the same type of sea ice “ecoregion” as the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort (discussed here). Previous studies on the Barents Sea polar bear population (Derocher 2005) indicate it may have recovered from extreme levels of overhunting (discussed here) and had stabilized, or was increasing very slowly, as early as 2002 (discussed here) — similar to what has happened in Davis Strait (discussed here).

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations, with the Barents Sea region highlighted; map courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), extra labels added.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations, with the Barents Sea region highlighted; map courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), extra labels added.

The most recent Barents Sea population estimate was done in 2004 (2,650; range ~1900-3600), based on an aerial survey (Aars et al. 2009). Aerial surveys are the only practical method of establishing population counts in regions like this where many bears never set foot on land. The previous estimate for the Barents (1982) was “2,000-5,000” but its accuracy was considered “poor” (discussed here).

The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), in their most recent report, lists the Barents Sea population as “data deficient” for status, current trend and estimated risk of decline within 10 years (Obbard et al. 2010:62, Table 1) and the “notes” for this entry say:

Population estimate is based on a new aerial survey. There was likely an increase in the subpopulation size after 1973 until recently. Current growth trend is unknown.

This 2004 estimate is now almost a decade old and potentially no longer an accurate representation of what’s happening in the Barents Sea. The most up-to-date information has not yet been published but it is available online. It’s eye-opening to say the least, if only that it appears to be yet another example of a polar bear population that is so far not showing signs of being harmed by sea ice declines, as I’ve discussed before (here).

[Update October 15, 2013: I’ve simplified the text discussion and figure regarding the Aars and Andersen denning study from the original posted]

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Beluga whales frolic in the High Arctic

Belugas at arcticwatch_with addressIt’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. As a special treat, I thought I’d point you in the direction of a delightful bit of video footage of beluga whales.

If you haven’t seen this Arctic Watch Beluga Foundation clip already, it’s worth a few minutes. It’s footage of belugas and their calves frolicking in the shallow water of Cunningham Inlet, on Somerset Island, Nunavut (within the Lancaster Sound polar bear subpopulation, which is north of the Gulf of Boothia subpopulation region that I discussed previously here and here).

While I previously surmised that Gulf of Boothia polar bears might hunt beluga from remnant ice during the summer in years when the ice doesn’t totally melt (like they do in Hudson Bay, see belugas as food for hungry polar bears), it appears they also successfully hunt beluga in shallow waters like those found in Cunningham Inlet. But there is no hunting footage in this post.

Link and further info below, including a map and references on beluga, and polar bear predation on beluga in this region.

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Kaktovik polar bears could be back on the ice this weekend

This is a quick follow up on my last post (here) on Kaktovik polar bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation.

Kaktovik is the bright pink dot on the ice map below (October 3, 2013: click to enlarge), from the Canadian Ice Service – if the ice doesn’t get to the polar bears waiting on shore this weekend, it will be within swimming distance.

Note that this map doesn’t show the shorefast ice that is already forming along the beaches, bridging the gap between land and the offshore ice.

Shorefast ice provides the fall’s first ice platform for polar bears to hunt seals. It doesn’t need to be extensive for the bears to get out there — researchers working in Western Hudson Bay found that an ice concentration of only 10% marked the point when polar bears left the shore.

Kaktovik on CIS chart Oct 3 2013