An El Niño year late start to freeze-up on Hudson Bay: bears gearing up to hunt

There is no serious ice on the west shore of Hudson Bay yet (as the map below shows) but the winds have just shifted – instead of coming from the south, they are now blowing in from the north.

Freeze-up and a resumption of seal hunting for Western and Southern Hudson Bay polar bears looks imminent. The bears get out on the ice as soon as they are physically able, when the ice is about 3-4 inches thick (about 10 cm).

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I’m going to let Kelsey Eliasson from PolarBearAlley, on shore at Churchill, convey the gist of the freeze-up situation on the Bay.

Recall that freeze-up was late in both 1998 and 1999 – during the height of that strong El Niño warmth as well as the year following.

December 5th and the north winds have finally arrived… you could almost feel the relief sigh across the landscape. Things were starting to get a little ‘weird’ and Churchill is already a little weird.

While this late freezeup has not held much good news, there are a few bright spots. First, the weather forecast is finally showing signs of locking the ice to the shore. Wind is going to pick up to 40km gusting to 60km per hour on Tuesday and with -20C highs forecasted for the rest of the week, the ice should lock in pretty quick. Right now, there’s a lot of fresh water ice floating around out on the horizon.

The other positive is that some bears are out hunting seals, or at least trying their hand at it. A mother with her yearling was out patrolling the ice edge, working pretty hard. Yesterday, a little female sub-adult came out to the ice, dipping her head in and then even jumping in before quickly exiting, rolling on the ice and happily running away. It was a pretty nice moment in a tough year, she probably has a pretty good future.

The last positive note is that we have drastically under-estimated how many mothers and cubs stay hidden through the season and then make a last minute break for the sea ice. This season must have set a record for family groups, some showing up for one day and then melting back into the treeline, other heading through town and pushed across river.

Another note that should be positive is that there are a heck of a lot of cubs around this year and that means that this population continues to fight and adapt against changing ice but also is probably growing. I am pretty confident that this summer’s aerial survey will show that it has rebounded to 1200 animals[my bold]

Read the whole thing here.

There is no way of knowing right now how many bears might not survive the winter after the late freeze-up this fall. But the fact that so many started in better condition than usual in July is reason to be hopeful that the die-off might not be as severe as it might otherwise have been. Young subadults and older bears – and some cubs – are most at risk of not being able to put back on some of the weight they’ve lost over the summer in time for the winter lull in feeding.

We’ll have to wait and see.

Almost forgot to add the Polar Bear Alert report, which came out this morning:

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