Polar bear sightings and sea ice conditions in Newfoundland & Labrador 2023 vs. 2017

Conservation officials issued an alert to residents of coastal communities to be aware of polar bears coming ashore over the last week in northern Newfoundland and southern Labrador, after a woman photographed a bear outside her home on Tuesday morning (7 March 2023). Since no bears in this subpopulation are tracked with satellite radio collars, we have no idea if there are a few dozen bears — or a few hundred of them — hunting on the ice and available to come ashore when the opportunity arises.

Recall that in April 2017, after more than a dozen bears had been spotted onshore in the region since early March, polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher told CBC Radio that this was bad news for the bears.

Polar bear sightings from 1 March-22 April 2017.

In “Changing sea ice bad omen for province’s polar bears: professor,” Derocher expressed a pessimistic view of what this meant about the conservation status of Davis Strait polar bears and why they were so suddenly visible to people on land in Newfoundland:

Although plenty of bears have been spotted wandering onto the island portion of the province in March and April, Derocher said for the most part, they are not there by choice.

“They don’t want to be on land, but what’s happening is they get caught in these filaments of ice that get pushed with wind and currents,” he said.

Filaments of ice” pushed ashore with bears on them? I would suggest that such a means of conveyance would be hard to achieve when coastlines are socked in solid with ice, as shown below.

Here is what sea ice conditions looked like five years ago for the week of March 6, where red is solid concentration ice (9/10-10/10 coverage). In particular, the south coast of Labrador and the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland where the first bears of the season were encountered, were completely ice-bound. I described it that year as a “highway of ice” for polar bears:

For the same week this year, conditions were fairly similar off Newfoundland and Labrador although lighter ice was present in the Gulf:

Later in the season in 2017 (19 April), the ice was even more compact close to land, which means bears could simply walk ashore and have a look around to satisfy their curiosity:

Notice the change in tone of Derocher’s tweet about this year’s sighting:

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