Category Archives: Life History

Fall Arctic ice growth often differs regionally: 2016 compared to other years

Arctic sea ice is spreading out quickly from its central basin summer refuge – according to this NSIDC Masie ice chart, it has already grown more than 2 mkm2 beyond the annual minimum reached in early September. Ice is already pushing south into the eastern Beaufort and the archipelago of Franz Josef Land in the Barents Sea.


Over the next couple of weeks, shorefast ice will start forming along the coasts of North America and Eurasia (see the first bits off Alaska in the 21 October CIS map below), which will eventually meet the expanding Arctic Basin pack to fill the Basin and Canadian Arctic Archipelago with ice – as it has done for eons.


The evidence from the last decade or so suggests that by the end of October, most of the Arctic north of the 79th parallel (see map below) will be filled with ice – although the Chukchi Sea (north of the Bering Strait) may not fill until sometime in November:


Polar bears usually resume hunting as soon as sea ice conditions permit in the fall, since it’s their last chance to top up their fat reserves before the dark and cold of winter when hunting may become next to impossible.

I’ve copied ice charts from the Masie archives for some previous years at 31 October below.

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Kaktovik, AK has a polar bear problem but not because bears are desperate for food

PBS has published a bizarre poor-starving-polar-bears story that uses pictures of fat, healthy bears to illustrate the supposed desperation of malnourished bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea that is blamed on declining sea ice.


The photo of the fat bear above, taken by the Kaktovik resident quoted in the 15 October 2016 PBS story, Polar bears, growing desperate for food, threaten native Alaskans, accompanies this statement:

“While images of malnourished polar bears have become a national symbol of the effects of climate change, they are a front line reality for Native Alaskans, who face them on their own property and do not want them to get hurt.”

Except this is not a story about starving bears but too many fat bears hanging around one particular community looking for other kinds of food – after being lured in by the enticing smell of rotting whale meat left onshore by the residents.

If photos of starving Beaufort bears existed that PBS could have used to illustrate this story, I’m certain those photos would have been used. But virtually all of the pictures I’ve seen of Kaktovik bears are the epitome of health – fat and sassy – but none that could be described as starving.

polar_bear-US FWS_young bear Alaska maybe Kaktovik no date.jpg

It turns out that while native Kaktovik residents have profited from tourists and journalist who have shown up in droves to view the large numbers of bears attracted to the bone piles left after butchering summer-caught bowhead whales, the bears have also put the community at risk of personal attack and loss of stored food. Who would have thought?

Residents of Kaktovik (see map below) have unwittingly enticed these polar bears ashore and now must deal with the consequences. As the residents of Churchill discovered decades ago, having polar bears close to your community comes with benefits, problems – and danger.


There is no doubt that Kaktovik has a polar bear problem but it cannot plausibly be blamed on anthropogenic global warming, retreating sea ice, or starving bears – an irresistible attractant close to the community is the cause and solutions must be found to keep residents safe and their food secure. The PBS article discusses a few of those solutions. Some quotes and background below.

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Tracking Western Alaskan polar bears in the Beaufort in Sept – all 3 chose Canada

All three polar bear females tagged in the Southern Beaufort Sea far west of Kaktovik (near Barrow) spent all or most of September onshore in the Northern Beaufort area of Canada.


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The polar bear problem no one will talk about – the downside to large populations

A large polar bear population with lots of adult males – due to bans on hunting – means more survival pressure on young bears, especially young males. To blame more problems with young male bears on lack of sea ice due to global warming ignores the downside to the reality Norway asked for when it banned hunting more than 40 years ago.

More hungry young males coming ashore looking for food is one of the potential consequences of living with a large, healthy population of polar bears. Biologist Ian Stirling warned of such problems back in 1974.

UPDATE: added below 6 Oct. 2016, statistics of defense of life shootings of polar bears in Svalbard since 1973.


Svalbard area polar bear numbers have increased 42% since 2004 and more hungry young polar bears almost certainly mean more polar bear problems, as folks in Svalbard (see map and quotes below) have experienced this year.
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Polar bears seldom catch seals they stalk in summer – it’s why they fast

This short BBC video shows why polar bears are so often unsuccessful in their summer hunts – adult bearded seals are the species most often available on the ice. These seals are not only predator-savvy but there are lots of escape routes in the melting ice, and this has always been so.

“Hungry polar bear surprises a seal – The Hunt: Episode 2 Preview – BBC One”

Melting ice in summer is not a new phenomenon (e.g. NASA photo below from mid-July 2016) – Thomas Grenfell and Gary Maykut described the process of melt pond development back in the 1970s:

“Melt ponds reach the maximum extent shortly after the disappearance of the snow, when they may cover upwards of 50% of the ice.”


Melting summer ice has always made it challenging for polar bears to catch seals, as this quote from Ian Stirling (1974) show, based on his work in the Central Canadian Arctic in the summer of 1973 (July and August):

There is a great abundance of natural holes in the ice during summer, anyone of which a seal could surface through.

This is still true in areas like the Southern Beaufort Sea today (e.g. Whiteman et al. 2015): the ice melts and in some areas, disappears completely in summer.

It’s why polar bears – unlike other species of bears in summer – depend on their stored fat to see them through until the ice reforms in the fall.

The meme “If there’s no ice, there’s no ice bear” is political-style rhetoric, not science.

[When polar bear scientists say “sea ice” or “ice” – they mean summer sea ice. Sea ice in winter and spring are not predicted to decline by 2100 to any appreciable degree and that has been true since sea ice predictions began]

Polar bears in Hudson Bay and Davis Strait routinely go 4-5 months without sea ice in the summer and have done since studies on them began. Yet, all of the polar bear subpopulations in Hudson Bay and Davis Strait are stable or increasing.

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea during August 2016

Only three females with collars are still being tracked by USGS researchers in the Beaufort Sea and all of them spent August 2016 on the sea ice in the eastern portion, off the coast of Banks Island.


Meanwhile, as Arctic sea ice nears the annual low, NSIDC predicts that 2016 will likely not set a new record but may bottom-out below 2007 (the second-lowest since 1979). The impact of low September sea ice on polar bear health and survival, based on recent research reports, will be the topic of an upcoming post.
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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