Category Archives: Life History

Arctic melt ponds get media spotlight as Laptev Sea ice hits an 11 year high

PolarBearCV1_USGS_2009

Walt Meier, sea ice scientist at NASA Goddard, made a statement yesterday about this year’s ice conditions [2016 Climate Trends Continue to Break Records: July 19, 2016]:

“It has been a record year so far for global temperatures, but the record high temperatures in the Arctic over the past six months have been even more extreme,” Meier said. “This warmth as well as unusual weather patterns have led to the record low sea ice extents so far this year. [my bold]

Well, except for Davis Strait/Labrador Sea this spring. And Western Hudson Bay/Foxe Basin this month – plus the fact that late July sea ice in the Laptev Sea is higher than it’s been for more than a decade (more on that below).

r04_Laptev_Sea_ts_4km 2016 July 19

I guess totals matter for some things – just not for polar bears. However, it’s nice to see the issue of melt ponds get some attention, since they are such a prominent feature of polar bear habitat during the summer melt season.

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Hudson Bay update – lots of sea ice well positioned for polar bears to get ashore

There is slightly less ice this year in Hudson Bay than last year but it is hugging tight against the western shore, which means polar bears in Western and Southern Hudson Bay will be able to stay out on the ice (if they want to) until August.

Sea ice extent Canada 2016 July 15_CIS

The latest weekly ice graph from the Canadian Ice Service (for 9 July) below shows average ice coverage this year (and more than there was in 1976 and 1977):

Hudson Bay same week 9 July 1971-2016

[By the way, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group website is still “under construction” allowing them to avoid mentioning the less-than-dire conclusions contained in the 2015 IUCN Red List assessment]

More ice maps below, comparing previous years.

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New paper: U of A put collars on subadult SB polar bear males since 2007

Even though it is well known that subadult male polar bears (≤ 4 years old) continue to grow in mass and bulk as they mature – so that their thick necks get even larger – in recent years Andrew Derocher and his students at the University of Alberta potentially endangered the lives of many subadult males in the Southern Beaufort in the process of learning relatively little they didn’t already know.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

Money quote from a just-accepted paper by Master’s student Jody Pongracz and supervisor Derocher (“Summer refugia of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the southern Beaufort Sea” Polar Biology, in press 2016):

“The number of bears tracked varied over time due to collar design, deployment, and both planned and unplanned collar retention.”

So, how much “unplanned collar retention” issues [collars that did not fall off as expected] went on during this 2007-2010 study? They don’t say.

Is this paper saying U of A researchers knew they had ‘collar retention’ issues as far back as 2010 but continued to deploy them on subadult males after that study was over? It seems so, because they had an issue with just such a bear last year.

The bear with an apparently tight collar that was photographed last fall (see photo above) went out onto the ice and no one knows what happened – there has been no more information on him since, although researchers have apparently been watching for him, updated just yesterday). The University of Alberta statement says (under the June 2 update):

“Ongoing research at the University of Alberta is shifting to ear tag radios as required”

So now they realize that putting collars on subadult males is not such a good idea. Brilliant!

CBC News (28 October 2015): “Photo shows polar bear injured by tight radio collar“. See previous posts here and here. In a Global News interview (23 November 2015), Derocher admitted his team had “likely” put the collar on that bear, prompting the University of Alberta to issue a “Q & A” statement on the incident – which continues to insist that failure of collars to release is “rarely seen.”

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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – all bears on the ice in June

The recent open water in the Southern Beaufort didn’t seem to change what polar bears were doing – bears tracked by USGS show them on the ice, likely trying to hunt. More ice edge means more hunting habitat at this time of year.

Beaufort tracking USGS bear-movements-June 2016 lg closeup

However, few hunts are likely successful at this time of year – because only older seals are on the ice and the broken ice makes escape so much easier for the seals (see previous post here). Fat bears on shore this summer (like the ones seen at Kaktovik in September) will tell us that they got enough to eat earlier in the season. Note that bears in good condition that appear at the whaling bone piles in September are there by choice (not stranding) and they got fat by feeding in the spring (March-May), not by picking at leftover whale scraps. Calories from terrestrial sources (for most bears) just reduce the amount of weight they lose over the summer.

More maps below. Continue reading

Critical spring feeding for polar bears is over – sea ice levels are now irrelevant

Polar bears in virtually all regions will now have finished their intensive spring feeding, which means sea ice levels are no longer an issue. A few additional seals won’t make much difference to a bear’s condition at this point.

Relative importance of seasons polar bear graphic_PolarBearScience_June2016

The only seals available on the ice for polar bears to hunt in early July are predator-savvy adults and subadults but since the condition of the sea ice makes escape so much easier for the seals, most bears that continue to hunt are unsuccessful – and that’s been true since the 1970s. So much for the public hand-wringing over the loss of summer sea ice on behalf of polar bear survival! Continue reading

Polar bears and W. Hudson Bay sea ice breakup 2016

Breakup for Western Hudson Bay (WHB) is looking to be later than usual this year, given that the average breakup date since 1991 has been July 1 (using a 30% threshold) – only a few days from now – and the ice in WHB is nowhere near 50% coverage, let alone 30%.

Churchill_Polar_Bear_2004-11-15 Wikipedia

Note that few WHB bears come off the ice around Churchill – most come ashore along the southwest coast of Hudson Bay (almost into SHB) and make their way north over the course of the summer to meet the ice as it reforms in the fall north around Churchill – that’s why it’s called a “migration.”

map-WesternHudsonBay

There’s still a lot of ice left in Hudson Bay, as the Canadian Ice Service map for 29 June 2016 (below) shows: Sea ice extent Canada 2016 June 29 CIS

It seems to me that breakup for WHB this year is looking rather like 2014, which was something like a week later than the average since 1991, but time will tell. See below for comparison to 2009 (a late breakup year), 2015, and 2013 (lots of variability!), as well as a discussion of when bears come ashore in relation to this sea ice breakup benchmark.

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Five years of polar bear habitat at June 20 around the Arctic

Five years worth of sea ice maps for the same date is hard to come by in this country, since the Canadian Ice Service does not archive their daily sea ice maps. However, due to some forethought, I have at hand ice maps going back to 2012 for the longest day of the year for Canada and archives for other regions provide similar perspective at the solstice.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Regehr photo_March 21 2010_lg

Few photos of polar bears in June likely exist – too early for most bears to come ashore and the ice too unstable for humans to be offshore [photo above is dated March].

Compare the five maps for Canada and eastern Alaska below. Notice the differences for Hudson Bay: it may seem ironic, but 2012 (which had the lowest September minimum since 1979 due to an August storm) had the most typical Hudson Bay breakup/melt pattern compared to previous years. [Keep in mind this recent post about how much ice can remain even when almost none is visible on the ice maps]

In many regions, polar bear hunting efforts are seldom successful after early June because young-of-the-year seal pups have taken to the water to feed, which means the only prey still on the ice are predator-savvy adults and subadults that have an easy time escaping in the rapidly breaking up ice fields. Bears that come ashore in June likely are not missing much – a little less ice than usual at this time of year is not going to make much difference.

Overall, despite doom and gloom predictions we heard in March 2016 (“wintertime extent hits another record low”), sea ice extent (courtesy NSIDC) at 20 June 2016 was the same at this date as it was in 2010 and 2012 at this time of year – which essentially marks the end of the primary feeding period for polar bears (except for those that live in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, where seals give birth a bit later in the spring).

Sea ice at 20 June_2016 vs 2012 and 2010_NSIDC interactive

And did polar bears die in droves due to conditions in 2010 or 2012, in any subpopulation around the Arctic affected by low sea ice levels? No, they did not. In fact, the subpopulation that had the most recent survey done (Svalbard portion of the Barents Sea – 2015) was not only found to be thriving but numbers had increased markedly (42%) over 2004 levels. Now that’s resilience!

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