Remembering the terrorizing Belushya Guba polar bears: lots of Barents Sea ice cover this year

Three years ago, the Russian village of Belushya Guba on southwest coast of Novaya Zemlya on the Barents Sea got international attention for the dozens of polar bears that had invaded the local dump and some aggressive bears were terrorizing local residents. The phenomenon was of course blamed on climate change by virtually all media outlets largely because there was no sea ice on that coast at the time (as had been true many years before without bear trouble).

This year is a different story completely. It’s only early January and already there is abundant ice along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya; ice in the Barents Sea in general is well up over recent averages and the pack is already converging on Bear Island (Bjørnøya) to the south of the Svalbard archipelago. Ice this far south often brings polar bear visitors to the weather station there but that doesn’t usually happen until March or April.

You’ll find references in previous posts linked here.

Barents Sea ice

Compared to recent years, from NSIDC Masie, to 5 January 2022:

Sea ice concentration and extent in the Barents Sea from the Norwegian Ice Service at 6 January 2022:

Closeup of ice concentration and extent around Svalbard for 6 January 2020, showing the pack moving in on Bear Island (Bjørnøya) at the bottom of the chart.

Historical charts for this early in the year show how unusual this pattern is: it appears the last time the ice converged on Bear Island in early January was 2009, when there was little ice on the west coast of Novaya Zemlya.

Last year it wasn’t even close. ice cover was really low across the entire region except for Franz Josef Land, which is why it is so important for Barents Sea polar bears.

In 2019, the year of the Belushya Guba bear trouble (which actually began in December 2018 but didn’t get reported until February 2019), there was little ice on the west coast of Novaya Zemlya or even on the east coast of Svalbard:

Let’s look at this year’s chart again (below), against that from 2019 (above):

The trouble with polar bears at the dump in Belushya Guba was due to bears habituated to garbage, which can happen anywhere and which made them disinclined to leave to hunt on the sea ice when they were able. Something similar happened in Churchill Manitoba in 1983.

It seems that the problem with garbage bears in Belushya Guba has been solved.

However, if some Barents Sea polar bears around Novaya Zemlya are found struggling to find food this year, it can’t be blamed on lack of sea ice: instead blame high population numbers of bears with lots of adult males who bully younger/smaller bears and steal what food they can find.

Competition is one of the reasons that winter is such a hard time for polar bears: it’s hard to find food and sometimes even harder to keep it long enough to consume it. Spring, with its glut of newborn seals, can be a life-saver for some bears.

That said, biologist Jon Aars confirmed about a year ago that the bears around Svalbard at least are doing just fine, which the field research results from spring 2021 seem to confirm:

“It seems that they [polar bears] are quite resistant, and they are doing quite well despite the fact that they’ve lost a lot of their habitat.” Despite the odds, Svalbard’s polar bear numbers do not appear to have decreased in the last 20 years, he says.

CNN 9 December 2020: Emails from the Edge.

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