Category Archives: Life History

Lingering late season sea ice brings polar bear visitor to northern Newfoundland

Polar bear season for St. Lunaire-Griquet Newfoundland ran from 6 March to 10 June this year — three long months when polar bears came to visit the community during the season when bears are usually occupied with feeding on young seals and mating.

Newfoundland polar bear 10 June 2018_Iceberg Festival Committee_Thresa Burden photo

Below is a map of the region: St. Lunaire-Griquet is at the tip of the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, just north of St. Anthony (where some of the action in my polar bear attack thriller, EATEN, takes place):

Saint Lunaire Griquet Newfoundland location_Google maps

As of yesterday (June 10), when the last sighting of a fat and healthy polar bear took place, there was still quite a mass of thick first year ice (>1.2 m thick) off the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, amongst a field of icebergs:

Hudson Bay North daily stage of development 2018 June 10 ice warning

The first sighting in the area this year was back in early March, which I blogged about here. Fortunately, the Davis Strait bears that occupy the East Coast pack ice are usually well feed at this time of year and seldom pose a serious threat to humans: the fact that visitors ashore are often easily pursuaded to leave (or do so on their own) suggests they are more curious than hungry.

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Critical evidence on W Hudson Bay polar bears still not published after 25 years

Polar bear researchers have been doing capture/recapture studies in Western Hudson Bay for decades yet most of the data claimed to be critical for assessing effects of human-caused global warming on this species have not been published. I raised this point in one of my early blog posts (27 Sept 2012) but the situation has not changed in 6 years. Here’s an update.

Derocher in the field in WH_CBC story 2016

From CBC story 14 Sept 2016.

Years ago now, in an oft-cited paper, Stirling and Derocher (2012) claimed to summarize the evidence that climate warming was negatively impacting polar bear health and survival. Several life history parameters were considered crucial, particularly body condition.

Despite almost a dozen papers (and perhaps more) on various aspects of WH polar bear health and life history studies based on capture/recapture data published since 2004  (e.g. Castro de la Guardia 2017; Lunn et al. 2016; Pilfold et al. 2017), none have reported the body condition data that supposedly support the claim that sea ice loss is having a severe impact — and the same is true for litter size, proportion of independent yearlings, and cub survival.1

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Does thick first year ice on Hudson Bay mean a late date ashore for WH polar bears in 2018?

Following up on my previous post, it appears sea ice conditions on Hudson Bay this year might be headed for a late breakup due to the dominance of thick first year ice. That would mean a relatively longer on-ice season for polar bears in Western and Southern Hudson Bay.

James Bay female and cub_Ontaro Govt

As of the 1st week in May 2018, most of Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin and Hudson Strait were covered with thick 1st year ice (dark green, >1.2 m thick):

Hudson Bay weekly stage of development 2018 May 7

Compare that to the 1st week of May 2016, which had much less thick first year ice than 2018 and more medium first year ice (70-120cm, bright green):

Hudson Bay ice stage of development weekly at 9 May 2016

To update the situation, at the end of May this year (week of 28 May), thick first year ice covered even more of the bay with a large patch of open water in the NW corner:

Hudson Bay weekly stage of development 2018 May 28

Thick first year ice does not melt as quickly as medium or thin first year ice (lime green) under most conditions, so the amount of thick first year ice present in May strongly affects the rate of breakup of the ice over the summer (temperature and wind also contribute). Here are some charts of ice melt sequences from the past (2016 and a couple others) that give a hint at what might be in store for Hudson Bay polar bears this year.

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea resumes after a one year hiatus

Fourteen bears tagged by the US Geological Survey (USGS) on or near the central Southern Beaufort Sea coast in April 2018 (near Kaktovik) will be tracked online over the coming months.

The break in published USGS tagging data from March 2017 to April 2018 was the first since the project began in December 2009 but no explanation for the hiatus has been provided. It is therefore unclear whether no tagging occurred in spring 2017 or data was simply not published online. The last bears followed were tagged in March 2016.

Tranquilized_pb570_S Beaufort March 2014_USGS

In contrast to previous years, this spring all fourteen of the bears have glue-on ear transmitters, which means they are either adult males or juvenile bears rather than females (which are fitted with satellite collars):

“In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service we are also experimenting with glue-on and ear tag satellite transmitters, which can be deployed on adult male bears and younger, still-growing bears.”

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Polar bear habitat update mid-May: little change since 1989 despite CO2 increase

Sea ice habitat for polar bears has not become progressively worse each year during their season of critical feeding and mating, as some scaremongers often imply. It’s true that absolute extent of Arctic ice is lower this spring than it was in 1979. However, according to NSIDC Masie figures, polar bear habitat at mid-May registers about 12 million km2, just as it did in 2006 (although it is distributed a little differently); other data show spring extent has changed little since a major decline occurred in 1989, despite ever-rising CO2 levels.

Polar bear feeding_Shutterstock_sm

In other words, there has been virtually no change in sea ice cover over the last 12 years, despite the fact that atmospheric CO2 has now surpassed 410 parts per million, a considerable and steady increase over levels in 2006 which were about 380 ppm (see below, from the Scripps Oceanographic Laboratory, included in the Washington Post story 3 May 2018):

Scripps CO2 curve at 29 April 2018

Not only that, but if rising CO2 levels were responsible for the decline of sea ice and implied effects on polar bears since 1979 (when CO2 levels were around 340 ppm), why has spring ice extent been so variable since 1989 (when the first big decline occurred) but so little changed overall since then? See the NSIDC graph below for April:

Sea ice 2018 April average_NSIDC graph

This year on day 134 (14 May), global ice cover registered 12.3 mkm2:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 May 14

In 2016 on the same day, the overall extent was much the same but there was more ice in the Chukchi and Bering Seas and less in the eastern Beaufort:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2016 May 14

More close-up charts of different regions below for 2018 vs. 2016, showing more detail.

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Polynya refresher: open water in spring is due to winds & currents, not ice melt

Arctic sea ice begins to open up in spring at predictable locations due to currents and prevailing winds and this was as true in the 1970s as it is today. Polynyas and widening shore leads that most often get mistaken for early sea ice melt are those in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and in Hudson Bay.

Beaufort Sea male polar bear USGS_2005 Amstrup photo

But contrary to concerns expressed about possible negative implications of these early patches of open water, these areas have always been critical congregation areas for Arctic seals and are therefore important feeding areas for polar bears.

Seal habitat frozen open lead_Beaufort 2008_Miller

Seals hauled out beside a lightly frozen over lead in Beaufort Sea ice, 2008. USFWS.

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Low Bering Sea ice mostly due to south winds, no data on an impact for polar bears

Sea ice in the Bering Sea this winter was said to be the lowest since the 1850s, largely driven by persistent winds from the south rather than the usual north winds although warm Pacific water was a factor early in the season (AIRC 2018). But what, if any, impact is this surprisingly low winter and spring ice cover likely to have on Chukchi Sea polar bear health and survival?

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

In fact, research on Chukchi Sea polar bears has included so few examples of individuals utilizing the Bering Sea in winter (Jan-March) and early spring (April-May) that any conclusions regarding an impact from this year’s sea ice conditions are likely to be invalid. In short, we don’t know what will happen since it has not happened before within living memory; the opinions of polar bear specialists must be taken with a grain of salt because so many of their previous assumptions have turned out to be wrong (Crockford 2017a,b, 2018), see here, here, and here. Seals, walrus and polar bears are much more flexible and resilent to changes in habitat conditions than most modern biologists give them credit for and consequently, it will be fascinating to see how the ice will change over the coming months and how the animals will respond.

Sea ice extent 2018 March average NSIDC

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