Category Archives: History

Narwhal and beluga ice entrapment is natural – not caused by global warming

A part-time Arctic researcher eager for media attention suggested earlier today that the ice entrapment of narwhals in 2008 and again in 2015 at Pond Inlet (that made headlines around the world) was the result of “sudden changes in temperature” caused by climate change. This grossly misleading claim ignores the facts: ice entrapment of narwhals is an entirely natural feature of the Arctic that has been known about for hundreds of years.

Narwhals_at risk from climate change_CBC 13 Aug 2016 headline

Narwhals: the ‘giant unicorn of the sea’ at risk from climate change” (CBC, 13 August 2016), a print version of a CBC Radio interview with Clint Wright that aired 8 August 2016. Wright is the general manager at the Vancouver Aquarium and apparently has “joined a team of researchers to tag and study” narwhals for several years – but does not seem to know much about the history or circumstances of natural ice entrapment.

Ice entrapment of small whales is nothing new. The first formally documented incident – in English – occurred in 1915 (Porsild 1918) and the phenomenon has probably occurred as long as there has been ice in the Arctic (millions of years).

Animals routinely become trapped in a few specific areas due to local geography: when ice that forms in the north moves south quickly, it blocks the entrances to inlets or coastal bays that still have open water. The presence of the pack ice causes nearby  temperatures to drop quickly. Rapid development of ice on the bay proceeds from the mouth toward the head of the bay. Any whales present cannot escape to open water and will eventually die or be eaten.

Pond Inlet at the north end of Baffin Island is one such place but Disko Bay in western Greenland is another. In fact, Pond Inlet and Disko Bay are almost identical in geographic layout even though they lie on opposite sides of Baffin Bay, so it’s not surprising that both are locations of repeated entrapment events.

Three highly informative journal articles on the phenomenon of ice entrapment of narwhals and beluga are open access documents that reveal some fascinating details of such incidents, including polar bear predation on trapped whales. h/t T. Nelson Continue reading

Barents Sea polar bear research in the good old days – 1968/69 – with video

Here is some old footage shot in 1968-1969 of four Dutch researchers – none of whom had any experience with large carnivores – sent to study polar bears at Kapp Lee on Edgeøya (eastern Svalbard). It’s in Dutch so I don’t know what they’re saying but given the choice of music (Beatles, “All You Need is Love”) I can guess the message.

Still, the images are kind of cool, it’s interesting to see how research was conducted at the time by inexperienced personnel. FYI, I began my university studies in 1968, I was not much younger than these students at the time.

Overwintering Spitsbergen 1968-1969 [Uploaded to youtube 21 October 2012; length 45:55]

Description: In the winter of 1968-1969 stayed four Dutch students on the island Edgeøya east of Spitsbergen to do research as to polar bears. During that expedition, this film made by Paul van de Bosch and Hans Sweet and exhibited by the NOS on Dutch television in 1969. 

[Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation background here and here]

I found some additional background that I’ve included below, which shows how naive these young men were, although clearly they had enthusiasm. Dutch researcher Piet Oosterveld was one of the original four on the 1968 expedition and according to a recent news report (see below), will accompany a new expedition to study the effects of global warming. Map below is from the Dutch News story cited below. Spoiler alert: in 1987, Oosterveld was attacked by a polar bear and seriously injured, blamed in part on the rapid increase in polar bear numbers due to their protected status.

Dutch expedition route map
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Claim of range-contraction of polar bears due to declines in summer sea ice doesn’t hold up

Have polar bears suffered a contraction of their historical range due to recent declines in summer sea ice? Buried in a recent journal article lies such a claim, one I can’t recall having seen before. That makes it worth close examination.

Figure 2. A drawing of polar bears on St. Matthew Island that accompanied the May 1, 1875 Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization article written by Henry Elliot. See here.

A drawing of polar bears on St. Matthew Island that accompanied the May 1, 1875 Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization article written by Henry Elliot. See here.

The assertion appears in the introduction of a recently published paper that got a lot of attention online (“Implications of the Circumpolar Genetic Structure of Polar Bears for Their Conservation in a Rapidly Warming Arctic” by Peacock and colleagues (2015), discussed previously here, news coverage here and here).

Here is how the authors put it:

There is already evidence of change in the contemporary distribution of polar bears. For example, polar bears, once common in Newfoundland [29], are now seen there only infrequently and in small numbers. Similarly, polar bears once regularly summered on St. Lawrence and St. Matthew islands in the Bering Sea [30–32]. Now they are irregularly observed in the Bering Sea and do not spend summers on St. Matthew Island. Although these changes in polar bear distribution may also have been related to overharvest, the recent reductions in the extent of sea-ice due would prevent current and regular use of these areas.[my emphasis]

There are three main reasons the claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny:
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Polar bears in winter – a seasonal review of insights and research

Here are summaries of my “Polar bears in winter” series. It’s an interesting recap of what polar bears do over the unimaginably cold and dark months of an Arctic winter.

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Russia the first to ban polar bear hunting in 1956, not a surprise why

Soviet soldier in a tank, feeding condensed milk to polar bears c. 1950 (i.imgur.com), via Redditt 16 November 2014.

Soviet soldier in a tank, feeding condensed milk to polar bears c. 1950 - Imgur

Sponsored by the Russian Dash Cams Association. Reminding you to drive your tank safely and avoid hitting polar bears.”

Apparently, polar bears are attracted to tanks as they are to ships and submarines, which made them easy targets for men with guns. This, along with the rather extensive use of so-called ‘set guns’ (a baited apparatus fixed with a loaded shotgun), led to a significant decline of polar bears in the U.S.S.R. and the Barents Sea area by the 1950s. See also, “The slaughter of polar bears that rarely gets mentioned (ca. 1890-1930)

This was the real threat to polar bears and it was successfully halted by international agreement in 1973. We should not forget that polar bears are a conservation success story.

How long have polar bears – and people – lived around Hudson Bay?

I came across a story in the news yesterday about the discovery of an archaeological site in northeastern Manitoba that brings to mind a post I wrote back in November 2012 on the geological and archaeological history of Hudson Bay.

As I noted then, most of the archaeological sites found on or near the coast of Hudson Bay are about 1,000 years old or less – and this new site fits that pattern perfectly.

Hubbard Point Location Map with summer core area v1

A news report at the CBC (June 30, 2014) carried this description of the find, at a site called Hubbard Point, which sounds like it could yield polar bear remains: Continue reading

Amstrup grasps at straws to defend his polar-bears-are-doomed computer model

Polar bear activist Steven Amstrup made an astonishing statement in an interview earlier this week — he insisted that the current rate of warming in the Arctic is greater than anything polar bears have lived through before. He also said that optimistic comments on the future of polar bears made by geneticist Matt Cronin a few weeks ago were “incautious” and “misleading.”

Polar bear cubs in den wikipedia

Previously, I described how a new paper by Cronin and colleagues confirmed that genetic evidence indicates polar bears have been around long enough to have survived several past Interglacial periods that were warmer than today (and therefore, would have had virtually no summer ice). Cronin, not unreasonably, had some critical things to say about computer modeled predictions that polar bears could not survive in an Arctic without summer sea ice.

On Monday, the Anchorage Daily News gave Amstrup a forum to rebuke Cronin for his comments. A similar story was also carried by the Washington Post. [In the same ADN article, geneticist Charlotte Lindqvist, offered an outdated argument against future polar bear survival that I’ll deal with later]

Today, I’ll address Amstrup’s ridiculous assertion that the current rate of warming, attributed by him primarily to human activities rather than natural variation, is something polar bears have never experienced in their evolutionary history (a period of more than 400,000 years!).

Let’s start with the offending portion of the news item (published March 31, 2014):

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