Brace yourself: more starving polar bear news stories in the pipeline from Svalbard

A few polar bears have become stranded on small islands north of Svalbard since the local sea ice retreated — of which the bear that mauled a cruise ship guard last month was but one — and if return of the ice is as late as last year, those handful of bears are likely doomed to die of starvation. This is not due to climate change but rather bad judgment on the part of these few bears. They were not forced ashore: if they’d stayed on the ice like the rest of the population, they’d have likely been just fine.

Daily Mail stranded bear headline_3 Aug 2018 all

Similar to the bear in northwestern Hudson Bay that fatally mauled a young father in early July, these bears were likely lured ashore by the prospect of masses of bird eggs present on island rookeries. But they overstayed their window of opportunity and the ice retreated without them.

Fledgling birds and bird eggs are not replacements for seals in a bear’s diet but when the season of easy seal kills winds down, as it does in late spring, easy-picking sea bird eggs may be enticing enough to lure a few bears ashore when they’d be better off on the ice.

That is not the fault of climate change.

Unlike bears in Hudson Bay and many other regions — including the Lancaster Sound area of Canada where the National Geographic “starving” bear was filmed last summer — these bears were not forced ashore by retreating ice: they chose to do so.

Bears stranded onshore

One bear was spotted on tiny Karl XII-øya (see map below) in early May (4-10) this year by a photographer on a cruise. The island, which is a bit further east and south than the Sjuøyane Islands (“Seven Islands”) where a cruise ship guard was mauled by a stranded polar bear a few weeks ago, was surrounded by open water. You can read the photographer’s story and see his photos here.

Karl XII-oya Island Svalbard location

Another photographer, this one a journalist for the Daily Mail travel section, spotted three bears on the same island sometime this summer and makes no apology for blaming this on climate change. She doesn’t state when exactly this summer but the photo essay was published 3 August. One of the bears was likely the same one spotted in May. Of the three spotted by the Daily Mail photographer, one was in good condition (nice and fat), another was in OK condition, and the other was visibly thin.

The bear that mauled the cruise ship guard in late July on one of the Sjuøyane Islands was also a stranded bear. Judging by the photos of the bear’s dead body, it was visibly thin at the time of the attack and would likely have died within a few months if it had not been shot.

There are likely a few other stranded bears scattered across the isolated islands that dot that northern Svalbard landscape that haven’t yet been spotted, perhaps as many as a dozen altogether. Photographers aboard future cruises to the area are sure to keep us informed of their fate.

Most bears in the Barents Sea seem to understand that Svalbard is no longer a safe place to take refuge for the summer (Aars et al. 2015; Descamps et al. 2017), since only about 250 bears are currently using the Svalbard area exclusively (Aars et al. 2017; Tartu et al. 2018). Polar bears do not outnumber people on Svalbard. The rest stay on the ice year round or operate out of Franz Josef Land to the east (which is still with the Barents Sea subpopulation region defined by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialits Group).

But all bears stranded like this on remote islands are potentially very dangerous.

Sea ice conditions

There is no doubt that May is very early for the sea ice to leave this northern part of Svalbard (see discussion below).  An early ice retreat like this year also occurred in 2016.

Sea ice in the Barents Sea is highly variable from year to year, and always has been. See the graph below for September averages since 1979 (to 2017) from the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Barents Sea ice extent for Sept 1979 to 2017_NPI

It’s most likely that the ice will return to this area by October or November this fall but it is also possible that it will not return until the following January (2019), as like it did in 2016. If so, that will mean the bears will have spent 8-9 months with little food and all but the fattest of them are likely to die (keeping in mind that pregnant females in Western Hudson Bay routinely go that length of time without food while producing and then nursing newborn cubs, so a well-fed bear should be able to do the same).

Back in 2016, the ice had similarly retreated from northern Svalbard by late May (see chart below), a few weeks later than this year:

Svalbard sea ice 2016 May 30 NIS archive

But the ice did not return until the following February (2017, see below), which means any bears that took refuge on those islands in May 2016 would likely have starved before they could get back on the ice to hunt, even if they were in good condition to start with.

Svalbard sea ice 2017 Feb 3_NIS

In 2017, although the ice hadn’t returned to northern Svalbard until early February, the area was socked-in by solid ice in May that did not retreat until mid-August. While a limited amount of ice returned by April of the following year (2018), by early May it was gone again, leading to this year’s stranded bear situation.

However, in 2017, while Svalbard was totally ice-free at the seasonal minimum in late September, Franz Josef Land archipelago to the east never really lost its ice (see chart below). That’s why Franz Josef Land is a suitable alternate terrestrial refuge for Barents Sea polar bears, even in low sea ice years like this one. The sea ice itself is also a suitable refuge.

Barents Sea ice extent 2017 Sept 24_NIS

Bottom line: At least for the time being, northern and eastern Svalbard are no longer reliable terrestrial habitats for Barents Sea bears. Only in exceptionally good ice years have bears been able to come ashore on the eastern islands in summer and depart in fall (or the following spring for females that have given birth). But nothing about the Barents Sea situation forces polar bears ashore on Svalbard islands: they have a choice to stay on the ice year round or operate seasonally out of Franz Josef Land. Either are viable options.

However, that will probably never stop a few bears from making a bad decision to go ashore in late spring (perhaps lured by sea bird rookeries) where they may become stranded until the ice returns. The loss of a handful of bears to these poor decisions, even if they occcur every year, will not materially affect the total Barents Sea population (currently about 3,000 or 3750, depending on which figures are used (Crockford 2017, 2018) — and not that amount for the Svalbard area alone, as often stated). These are not deaths that can be justifiably blamed on climate change but that won’t stop some people from doing so.

References

Aars, J. 2015. Research on polar bears at Norwegian Polar Institute. Online seminar (‘webinar”), January 14. pdf here.

Aars, J., Marques,T.A, Lone, K., Anderson, M., Wiig, Ø., Fløystad, I.M.B., Hagen, S.B. and Buckland, S.T. 2017. The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research 36:1. 1374125. doi:10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125

Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3

Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. pdf here.

Descamps, S., Aars, J., Fuglei, E., Kovacs, K.M., Lydersen, C., Pavlova, O., Pedersen, Å.Ø., Ravolainen, V. and Strøm, H. 2017. Climate change impacts on wildlife in a High Arctic archipelago — Svalbard, Norway. Global Change Biology 23: 490-502. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13381

Tartu, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder,A., Bourgeon, S., Merkel, B., Lowther,A.D., Bytingsvik,J., Welker, J.M., Derocher, A.E., Jenssen, B.M. and Routti, H. 2018. Choose your poison — Space-use strategy influences pollutant exposure in Barents Sea polar bears. Environmental Science and Technology DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b06137

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