Relative to recent years and potential impacts on polar bear health and survival in Canada, there is nothing alarming in the pattern or speed of sea ice breakup for 2017, either over Hudson Bay, the southern Beaufort, or the eastern high Arctic.
Last year at this time (see map below), there was more open water in Hudson Bay and in the Southern Beaufort yet the polar bears came ashore in fine shape that summer and there was no hue-and-cry of dying bears anywhere. Breakup this year is on track to be about 3 weeks earlier than it was in the 1980s, as it has been since at least 2001, a conclusion reached by polar bear specialists (Castro de la Guardia et al. 2017; Lunn et al. 2016), who examined sea ice breakup to 2015.
Here are critical words to remember (more details here) from biologist Martin Obbard and colleagues (2016:29) on the relationship between body condition and sea ice for Southern Hudson Bay (SH) polar bears, which apply equally well to bears in other regions:
“Date of freeze-up had a stronger influence on subsequent body condition than date of break-up in our study. Though models with date of freeze-up were supported over models with other ice covariates, we acknowledge that lower variability in freeze-up dates than in ice duration or break-up dates could have influenced the model selection process. Nevertheless, we suggest that a stronger effect of date of freeze-up may be because even though break-up has advanced by up to 3-4 weeks in portions of Hudson Bay it still occurs no earlier than late June or early July so does not yet interfere with opportunities to feed on neonate ringed seal pups that are born in March-April in eastern Hudson Bay (Chambellant 2010). Therefore, losing days or weeks of hunting opportunities during June and July deprives polar bears of the opportunity to feed on adult seals, but does not deprive them of the critical spring period (Watts and Hansen 1987) when they are truly hyperphagic. No doubt, the loss of hunting opportunities to kill adult seals has a negative effect on body condition, but it appears that for bears in SH a forced extension of the fast in late fall has a greater negative effect on subsequent body condition.” [my bold]
In other words, by mid-June at least (maybe earlier), polar bears have largely finished their intensive feeding that’s so critical to their survival over the rest of the year.
That’s why the latest count of SH polar bears (Obbard et al. 2015) showed a stable population (and see this recent post on WHB polar population estimates). But freeze-up was late last year and that’s what will make the difference to polar bears over the coming year.
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