After a bit of ineffectual hand-wringing from polar bear specialists about low summer and fall sea ice conditions and unsubstantiated worries about impacts on bear survival – including Southern Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and Hudson Bay – I’ve heard no concerns expressed so far about the unusually low extent of ice off the East Coast of North America at the start of this winter. The Labrador Coast is just about the only region bereft of ice this winter but could catch up quickly at any time: ice coverage in the Barents Sea, East Greenland, and Bering Sea is similar to or above recent levels (last five years) so far, as is the overall extent.
Higher this year than any recent year except 2015, although it’s pretty close:
Lowest at this point in the last five years by quite a bit and even lower than late 2014, when it was also late forming. Oddly, no one seems to be talking about Davis Strait polar bears, which have been doing very well so far because of abundant harp seal populations on the East Coast:
Despite the low ice off the Labrador coast, the first record of a polar bear on shore in Newfoundland this season has already occurred.
There is usually much more ice by this stage of the season off Labrador, as the “departure from normal” chart from the Canadian Ice Service below shows (red is much less than average; blue is more than average):
The Bering Sea is gaining ice rapidly, so far only below 2015 and 2016 for ice extent:
There hasn’t been this much ice in the Bering Sea in early January since 2016, which bodes well for later in the season:
Sea ice off the east coast of Greenland is on track to be higher than any recent years: it was highest yesterday but pack ice is mobile and extent can vary day-to-day.
Not shown above is the much higher than usual sea ice extend (since 1997) off the west coast of Svalbard. So much ice is present that a persistent polar bear visiting Longyearbyen, the capital, had to be shot on New Year’s Eve. Here’s another perspective from the Norwegian Ice Service that shows the major archipelagos of the region:
Virtually total freeze-over of the bay in 2019 was completed less than a week behind 2018 – about 15 December (Day 349) in 2019 vs. about 9 December (Day 343) in 2018. However, there was enough ice along shore by mid-November in 2019 for polar bears to leave for the ice earlier than they did (on average) in the 1980s, for the third year in a row.
Hudson Bay ice will now thicken over the coming winter months (weekly stage of development chart below from the Canadian Ice Service):
See map below for the last locations as of 27 December 2019 of collared females and ear-tagged male polar bears captured by University of Alberta researchers in the spring of 2019 in western Hudson Bay (symbols showing on land are females with newborn cubs in their dens or failed/dropped collars or ear tags), below. See map for 3 Jan 2020 here:
Now completely ice covered, there is considerable thick, multi-year ice in the eastern Beaufort as usual (weekly stage of development chart below from the Canadian Ice Service). When cold conditions in Alaska combine with this multi-year ice pushing against the shoreline, the resulting thick and consolidated shorefast ice in spring forces pregnant ringed and bearded seals to move elsewhere, causing widespread starvation of polar bears – as it did in 1974-76 and 2004-2006 – that these days gets blamed on climate change: