Category Archives: Life History

Polynyas are critical for polar bear spring feeding

Areas of open water or thin ice in spring are essential for the survival of Arctic species, as I emphasized in my recent peer-reviewed paper on polar bear ecology. Sea ice is still abundant in spring (April-June), which is the critical feeding period for polar bears: they must consume about 2/3 of the total calories they need for the entire year. Most of those calories come from newborn seals (ringed, bearded, and harp).

In southern areas, such as Hudson Bay and Davis Strait, virtually all of this feeding is completed by the end of May, making June a time of opportunistic hunting for most bears: if they find a seal, they will kill and eat it but if not, they can do without. That’s not just my opinion but the reason given by polar bear specialists themselves to explain why Southern Hudson Bay polar bear numbers had not declined in the 2000s despite a sudden increase in the ice-free season:

…even though break-up has advanced by up to 3-4 weeks in portions of Hudson Bay it still occurs no earlier than late June or early July so does not yet interfere with opportunities to feed on neonate ringed seal pups that are born in March-April in eastern Hudson Bay. Therefore, losing days or weeks of hunting opportunities during June and July deprives polar bears of the opportunity to feed on adult seals, but does not deprive them of the critical spring period when they are truly hyperphagic. [Obbard et al. 2016:29]

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Fat polar bear killed on the south shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Gaspé Peninsula

A fat polar bear was killed early this morning (Sunday 1 May 2022) near a small town on the north shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, the portion of Quebec that New Brunswick in the Gulf of St. Lawrence after being tracked by wildlife conservation officers since yesterday. Two other sightings were reported in the Gulf earlier in April on the opposite shore, which could possibly have been the same bear.

This is why there are polar bears in my recent sea ice tsunami novel set in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in March 2026. Davis Strait polar bears are thriving, having increased in number dramatically since the 1970s, due to hunting bans and abundant harp seals. Until the last few years, Davis Strait polar bears haven’t been spotted this far south in the spring since 1849 (with a few other historical reports even further south in the 1500s). The last time a polar bear was spotted onshore in the Gulf area (and got this much attention) was in late March 2017.

These recent polar bear sightings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence likely reflect a population that’s at its peak size or still increasing. The photo above shows the bear was in excellent condition after feeding heavily on harp seal pups. Unfortunately, from where it ended up, it likely wouldn’t have made it back to the receding pack ice off Labrador in time to return to Davis Strait for the summer.

Excerpt below from the CBC story (‘Polar bear spotted on Gaspé peninsula killed by wildlife officers‘; 30 April 2022), but first you’ll need the map of the area. Charts for sea ice conditions at the time follow.

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Explaining abundant polar bear sightings on the East Coast as an upshot of sea ice loss is absurd

Last week, a senior producer at CBC News, in order to concoct a timely story for ‘Earth Day’, attempted to explain the high number of sightings of polar bears this April in Newfoundland and Labrador, compared to the last two years, as a consequence of climate change and its handmaiden, loss of Arctic sea ice.

Title: ‘With an extinction threat looming, no wonder polar bears are at our door — and on the roof: there’s a grim reason why polar bears have been frequently showing up in coastal communities’. CBC News, 23 April 2022

The problem with this narrative is that the East Coast had much reduced sea ice in 2021 and virtually no polar bear sightings in Newfoundland and none in Labrador. There was more ice in 2020 than 2021 but also few bears. This year, ice extent was similar to 2020 for most of the region but polar bear sightings were up considerably.

In fact, the two years with the most sightings and problems with polar bears since 2008 were 2017 and 2018: in 2017, sea ice was exceptionally thick in April (although average in extent) and by June the sea ice was so thick and enduring that the Newfoundland fishing fleet couldn’t get out for spring openings; 2018 was another year of average sea ice extent and had even an even larger number of sightings than 2017, in Newfoundland especially (Crockford 2019:32). This suggests the sea ice vs. polar bear correlation on the East Coast since 2008 – if there even is one – may be the opposite of that stated in the CBC article: less ice usually means fewer bears onshore in Newfoundland and Labrador and more ice often means more bears.

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More fat polar bear sightings around homes on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula

Two recent incidents really remind me of the opening scene in my polar bear attack thriller, EATEN, and this time both were captured on film. They involved bears in good physical condition and luckily, no one has been hurt. There is still sea ice off the Northern Peninsula, which has brought the bears from the north.

On Sunday (10 April) in St. Anthony, a woman was alerted by her dog to what she though was someone on the front porch and found herself literally face to face with a polar bear when she opened the door; it then hopped up on her roof. The next day, in Goose Cove, a woman watched two bears (probably a female with a two year old male cub) explore the outside of a neighbour’s house and then walk across her driveway.

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Sea ice average for March is the metric used to compare to previous winters

The average sea ice cover at the end of March is the metric used to compare ‘winter’ ice to previous years or decades, not the single-day date of ‘most’ ice. This year, March ended with 14.6 mkm2 of sea ice, most of which (but not all) is critical polar bear habitat. Ice charts showing this are below.

But note that ice over Hudson Bay, which is an almost-enclosed sea used by thousands of polar bears at this time of year, tends to continue to thicken from March into May: these two charts for 2020 show medium green becoming dark green, indicating ice >1.2 m thick, even as some areas of open water appear.

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Good news for polar bears and seals: new study finds multiyear Arctic sea ice is getting thinner

The fact that multiyear sea ice got thinner between 2018 and 2021 as documented by a new study, is ultimately good news for polar bears: less multiyear ice compared to first year ice is better for all marine mammals in the Arctic. Polar bears and seals, for example, are dependent on the seasonal ice that forms every winter (Atwood et al. 2016; Durner et al. 2009). Multiyear ice is simply too thick for any purpose except as a summer refuge for polar bears (for which land will do just as well) and a platform for maternity dens over the winter, for which thick first year ice will often do just as well (Anderson et al. 2012; Rode et al. 2018).

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Polar bears at Kolyuchin Island weather station provide a rare photographer’s treat

Russian wildlife photographer Dmitry Kokh took some photos and video last year of polar bears hunkered down at an abandoned weather station on the Chukchi Sea coast and he apparently won a prize for one of them, shown below. The shots are very cool, so I’ve provided some context for the story and posted the video here.

‘Summer Season’ by Dmitry Kokh
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East Coast sea ice so far similar to last year

Davis Strait ice pack is slowly moving south this year just as shorefast ice is developing in-place along the Labrador shoreline, similar to last year. East Coast harp seals that give birth in the region in March depend on this ice and so do many Davis Strait polar bears that feed on those newborn seals. In contrast, in 2017 the ice off Labrador was broader by mid-January (even more so by mid-February) and that seems to have made a huge difference by April, when ice north of Newfoundland was thick and extensive.

Compared to last year at this time, there was somewhat less ice along the Labrador coast but the difference is really negligible. By April, ice extent was well below average, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and there were few sightings of polar bears along the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts.

Back in 2017 at the same time (below), the band of ice along the southern Labrador coast was much broader, indicating more movement of Davis Strait ice from the north. This resulted in so many polar bear sightings in Newfoundland and Labrador by March and April that I could hardly keep up reporting them (Crockford 2019:32):

East coast conditions could change significantly over the next few weeks however, especially if weather conditions bring more north winds.

References

Crockford, S.J. 2019. State of the Polar Bear Report 2018. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 32, London. PDF here.

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.

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A ‘mass exodus’ of polar bears from Alaska to Russia has taken place, local residents claim

An article in a UK newspaper yesterday contains a claim made by local residents that polar bears which used to hang around Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) in western Alaska, are ‘moving to Russia’ (i.e. the Chukchi Sea) in a ‘mass exodus’. It’s certainly possible but if so, it should come as a surprise to no one and is good news for polar bears.

If the allegation is upheld by scientific evidence, polar bears will not have been pushed out of Alaska by lack of summer sea ice (i.e. ‘forced to migrate’) but rather pulled into the Chukchi Sea by abundant food resources that did not exist when summer ice cover was more extensive. It’s a big difference and it speaks to the benefits of less summer sea ice that no one wants to discuss.

Moreover, moving temporarily to where conditions suit them best is what polar bears do all the time: it’s not a new phenomenon, it’s a prominent feature of their biology (Crockford 2019).

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