We’ve hit the seasonal Arctic sea ice minimum for this year, called this morning by US NSIDC for 19th and 23rd of Septmeber: 4.59 mkm2, the same extent as 2008 and 2010. This is not a “ho-hum” year for polar bears: it means that since 2007, they have triumphed through 10 or 11 years1 with summer ice coverage below 5.0 mkm2 — levels that in 2007 were expected to cause catastrophic declines in numbers.
Summer sea ice below 5.0 mkm2 were not expected to occur until about 2050, according to 2005/2006 sea ice models and polar bear specialists at the US Geological Survey (USGS). Polar bear survival models predicted 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would disappear when ice levels reached this threshold for 8 out of 10 years (Amstrup et al. 2007, 2008; Hunter 2007) but polar bears have been more resilient than expected (Crockford 2017, 2018; Crockford and Geist 2018). In fact, in many areas (like the Chukchi Sea, Barents Sea and Foxe Basin) polar bears are thriving despite dramatic declines in summer sea ice coverage (Aars et al. 2017; ACSWG 2018; Peacock et al. 2013; Regehr et al. 2016; Stapleton et al. 2016).
The sea ice models used to support the addition of polar bears to the US Endangered Species List as ‘threatened’ with extinction suggested sea ice levels from 3-5 mkm2 would not occur unti mid-century, yet they dropped before the ink was dry on the 2007 USGS Reports (ACIA 2005; Hassol 2004; Holland et al. 2006; Solomon et al. 2007; Zhang and Walsh 2006).
The ice extent charts from the University of Bremen (below) show ice that’s 50% concentration or greater at the date of the seasonal minimum (19th September): what polar bear specialists define as preferred habitat (Amstrup et al. 2007).
Compare the minimum shown above to the coverage predicted for 2050 and to coverage at the minimum in 2012 (the NSIDC image is here):