Monthly Archives: April 2015

Arctic sea ice extent total for March does not equal global polar bear habitat

Only half or less of the estimated 2.6% loss per decade of March sea ice extent since 1979 (Fig. 1, below) represents a decline in polar habitat. That’s because several regions with sea ice that are not home to polar bears, like the Sea of Okhotsk, are included in Arctic sea ice totals.

Figure 1. Average monthly Arctic sea ice extent for March 1979-2015, which includes ice in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan, a decline of 2.6% per decade. NSIDC, March summary 2015.

Figure 1. Average monthly Arctic sea ice extent for March 1979-2015 (which includes ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, and the Baltic, where polar bears do not live), shows a decline of 2.6% per decade. NSIDC, March summary 2015.

Both the Sea of Okhotsk and northern Sea of Japan (Fig. 2) have sea ice in winter (which is included in total Arctic sea ice records) but they are not truly “Arctic” – neither is connected to the Arctic by continuous ice, even when the ice is at its maximum extent (nor is the Baltic Sea — in contrast to Hudson Bay and the east coast of North America, which are connected to the Arctic by continuous ice).

Sea of Okhotsk_1979 March marked_PolarBearScience

Figure 2. Location of the Sea of Okhotsk and Sea of Japan. Insert ice map for March 1979 from NSIDC shows it’s position relative to the Arctic proper.

That lack of connection to Arctic pack ice is probably the main reason that polar bears never colonized the Sea of Okhotsk, even though western Arctic seal species (ringed, bearded, spotted, and ribbon) and Arctic whales  (bowhead and beluga) live there. Polar bears don’t currently live in the Sea of Okhotsk and all evidence suggests they never have.

Sea ice maps show that about half of the total ice extent difference between March 1979 and March 2015 was due to a relatively large decline in sea ice cover for Sea of Okhotsk and northern Sea of Japan — regions without polar bears. Surely no reputable scientist or journalist would suggest that the “record low” maximum ice extent for 2015 has any relevance for polar bear health and survival? [or for Northwest Passage travel, for that matter] Sadly, they would.

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – March 2015 map

Here is the March 2015 follow-up to my post on the July 2013 track map for female 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.”

putting_collar_on_polar_bear_slider_USGS

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 USGS track map for March 2015 is copied below.

Three out of eight female bears tagged in the Southern Beaufort Sea were in the Chukchi Sea subpopulation region during March – not surprising, many bears cross this “boundary.”
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Superb sea ice conditions for polar bears worldwide during their critical feeding period

Prognosis, excellent. The sea ice hunting platform that polar bears require is everywhere and Davis Strait ice extent is the fourth-highest it’s ever been at this time of year.

Sea ice extent global 2015 April 2 NSIDC with anomaly WUWT

The spring feeding period is a messy, brutal business – many cute baby seals will die as polar bears consume 2/3rds of their yearly food supply over the next few months (April – June/early July), while sea ice is abundant.

Arctic marine mammals_Dec 31 2014_Polarbearscience

That leaves the remaining 1/3 of their energetic needs to be met over the following 9 months (most of it in late fall (late November/December) and hardly any during the summer months, regardless of whether the bears are on land or out on the sea ice) or over the winter. Continue reading

Polar bear consumption of terrestrial foods – new paper misses the point

A new paper by polar bear biologists (Rode et al. 2015) argues that terrestrial (land-based) foods are not important to polar bears now and will not be in the future – a conclusion I totally agree with – but they miss the point entirely regarding the importance of this issue.

Fat bears on land in the Southern Beaufort, Sue Miller photo, well-prepared for a brief summer fast.

Whatever food polar bears consume in the summer – whether they are on land or on the ice – doesn’t really matter. What matters is how many fat-rich seals they can consume between March and June each year. The fat put on in late winter/spring from gorging on baby seals carries polar bears over the summer, no matter where they spend it.

USGS polar bear biologist Karyn Rode and colleagues (press release here) have tried to frame this issue as one about future survival of polar bears in the face of declining sea ice. However, the fact that polar bears in the Chukchi Sea and Southern Davis Strait are thriving despite dramatic declines in summer sea ice (aka an extended open-water season), proves my point and disproves their premise. Bears in these regions are doing extremely well – contrary to all predictions – because they have had abundant baby seals to eat during the spring (see here and here).

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