Polar bear survival: habitat 2013 vs. 2016 for 22 January

Using sea ice maps issued by the National Sea Ice Data Center (NSIDC), it’s interesting to compare these two years with respect to polar bear health and survival (keeping in mind that no polar bears live in what I like to call the armpits of the Arctic – the Sea of Okhotsk, the Baltic Sea or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence)1:

22 January 2016

Sea ice extent 2016 Jan 22 NSIDC

22 January 2013

Sea ice extent 2013 Jan 22 NSIDC

Ice extent is below average in the Barents Sea this year, as it was at this time in 2013 (especially around the Svalbard Archipelago, see map below) and yet, all the Svalbard polar bears did not die: in fact, a count conducted in August 2015 revealed a 42% increase in Svalbard-area bears since 2004.

22 January 2016 Svalbard:

Svalbard sea ice extent 2016 Jan 22_NIS

22 January 2013 Svalbard:

Svalbard sea ice extent 2013 Jan 22_NIS

Conclusion

At the local level, slightly less extent of sea ice in winter (Jan-March) does not make any appreciable difference to polar bear health and survival, despite what some outspoken polar bear specialists imply. The fact is, the biologists own studies have shown that most polar bears eat few seals during the dark and cold of winter months. That’s why polar bears are at their leanest at the end of winter (see “Polar bears in winter” review here) and why good spring feeding conditions (April-June) are so critical.

Polar bear feeding by season simple_Nov 29 2015

Footnote 1. There are a few historic records of polar bear sightings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the cold Little Ice Age time period which I will review in a future post.

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