A polar bear was spotted this year on Bear Island (Bjørnøya) in the southern Barents Sea on 8 March by the crew at the Meteorological Station. The last time these workers had seen a polar bear was 2011 but this year extensive Barents Sea ice literally brought a bear to their doorstep, similar to the way that sea ice brings bears to southern Labrador and Newfoundland in late winter and spring.
After below-average ice cover around Svalbard for most of the winter months of January and February, by early March the ice had expanded so far to the south it reached Bjørnøya. It was the kind of ice that hadn’t been seen in decades and almost immediately, a polar bear was spotted on shore. Given the length of time that the ice surrounding the island persisted, it is likely more bears came ashore but were not seen: the Meteorological Station at the north end of the island is the only place that people live over the winter (see maps below).
The ice conditions that bring polar bears to Bjørnøya are pretty straightforward: no ice in late winter, no bears onshore.
As I discussed in a previous post, the pack ice descended on Bear Island 3-4 March, a few days before the bear was seen on the north coast. The Meteorological Station is located at the north end of the island (find the star on the map below):
According to a report published in the weekly newspaper Svalbardposten (21 March 2019), the crew of the Meteorological Station were just settling in to watch a film on the evening of Friday 8 March. They had set up to use a mound of snow as a makeshift projection screen when a polar bear stood up on it (see photo below), causing the crew to decide to move inside to watch their movie!
The photos show a bear in good condition for early March: abundant newborn Arctic seals (which polar bears depend upon to replenish fat lost over the winter and to fatten up ahead of summer) was still many weeks away at that point in the season.
A few days later (as shown in the Norwegian Ice Service ice chart below), the island was surrounded by ice that stayed until 21 March or so:
Nick Hughes, who heads the Meteorological Institute, told Svalbardposten that ice conditions at mid-March were almost ‘normal’ (i.e. as they had been before 2007), see photo below. This was not loose floes but consolidated pack ice. He said there used to be solid ice around Bear Island every year until 2006 but after that ice only reached the island in a few years (2009, 2011, and 2013) and even then remained for only short periods (he does not specify how short). There was apparently ice for only a few days in 2018.
Station manager Ragnar Sansteba, who has been on the island since 2007, saw one bear in 2008 (that perhaps arrived on an isolated ice floe), several in 2009, two in 2010 and seven in 2011. He also saw bear tracks (but no bear) in 2013.
Oddly, over the last few years when this phenomenon has happened in Labrador and Newfoundland (especially in 2017), at least one polar bear specialist as well as others have been quick to blame sighting of polar bears ashore in late winter and early spring on something referred to as ‘failed’ sea ice – even when this could not have been further from the truth (ice was extensive, thick, and was still present into June).
In contrast, this year sea ice around Newfoundland came later, was much less extensive, less concentrated, and present for a shorter period of time during spring than it was in 2017, and polar bear sightings onshore were much less common. I heard of only a few in early spring, see here, here, and here, and a few later in the season (May), here, here, and here, compared to almost two dozen in 2017 (Crockford 2018, 2019a, 2019b). That would suggest less extensive and less concentrated ice offshore in spring on the east coast of Canada results in fewer bears onshore, not more.
In other words, when ice brings a healthy polar bear population into contact with land, a few curious bears are almost certain to go exploring.
Or, as Bear Island station manager Ragnar Sansteba is quoted as saying:
“…with the sea ice comes the polar bear wandering.”
Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. Pdf here.
Crockford, S.J. 2019a. State of the Polar Bear Report 2018. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 32, London. pdf here.