Category Archives: Life History

More polar bear habitat in Hudson Bay region at mid-May than in 2006 & 2011

What a difference a bit of historical perspective can make to one’s attitude on the annual Arctic sea ice breakup.

masie_all_r10_v01_2016137_4km

The usual recent pattern (since 1979) has been for breakup to begin on the east side. However, this year and last (below), it has begun in the NW (as it did in 1990 and a few other years).

Not all of the open water is due to melt, of course. As I discussed last week in relation to the Southern Beaufort Sea, winds and prevailing currents at this time of year start to fracture the ice and move it around well before much significant melt has begun.

Compare 2016 (above) to 2006 (below), when there was 0.1 mkm2 less overall – with much less ice in Hudson Strait and in the east of Hudson Bay than this year:
masie_all_r10_v01_2006136_4km

Compare to 2011, when there was also 0.1 mkm2 less overall than this year:
masie_all_r10_v01_2011136_4km

It’s important to keep in mind that the intensive feeding season for polar bears is drawing to a close – within another two weeks, most young-of-the-year seals will be in the water feeding and inaccessible to bears.

The only seals on the ice during June and July are predator-savvy adults and subadults that have hauled out to moult and for these seals the rapidly disintegrating ice creates many escape routes. That means that as long as the ice breakup sequence allows polar bears to get their fill of young seals before the end of May, even during early breakup years most bears should be fat enough to survive the coming summer and winter fasts (see more here). So we should expect to see some bears coming ashore within the next two weeks.

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Beaufort Sea fractured ice due to strong Beaufort Gyre action – not early melt

The Canadian Ice Service has a cool NASA animated video showing the Beaufort Gyre in action – you can actually see the solid mass of ice crack and swirl west and north under the pressure of the massive corkscrew current – see it here (tips on getting yourself oriented in the video below the screencap):

Beaufort Gyre video screencap_21 April 2016_labelled

Note that the video is oriented with Banks Island on the bottom and the shore of Alaska along the left-hand side, as if the locator map provided was rotated as below:

Beaufort Gyre video screencap_locator map_rotated

The big ‘bite” of ice being torn out to the south of Banks Island is the Amundsen Gulf.

The caption for the NASA video says this (my bold):

“MODIS Terra imagery taken between April 4 and May 3, 2016 of the Beaufort Sea. The animation highlights the gradual ice breakup due to the Beaufort gyre.

So, early breakup here is due to Beaufort Gyre action – not early seasonal melt.
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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea in April 2016 and early polynya formation

putting_collar_on_polar_bear_slider_USGS

Here’s the update on the polar bears fitted with satellite collars or ear tags in the Beaufort by USGS biologists over the last two years. Five new bears were added last month, which means there are now thirteen bears being tracked. Ice conditions are somewhat different than they have been in the past but concluding that such a situation means trouble is premature, I think (see here). Continue reading

Longest-swimming polar bear lost less weight than if she had stayed onshore

Recent media hype over swimming polar bears in the Southern Beaufort has been quite spectacular (still going strong today at the Washington Post here) but a close look at relevant data shows the message is bogus. Researchers admit (in their methods section) they couldn’t tell if bears said to have swum “non-stop” actually hauled out for half a day or more to rest on small ice flows invisible to satellites and astonishingly, the bear getting all the media attention – who swam the longest of any bear – lost less weight than a bear would have done simply sitting on shore for the same length of time.

Washington Post_swimming polar bears_snapshot 21 April 2016

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Polar bear habitat update end of April 2016: Plenty of sea ice for feeding

So, here we are near the end of the first month of the Arctic spring and there is still more ice than usual off Labrador and conditions in the Barents Sea are improving daily. The fear-mongers can blather all they like about the potential risks of bears swimming in summer – but spring is the critical season as far as sea ice is concerned for polar bears and all polar bear biologists know it. Polar bears consume 2/3 of all the food they need for the year during April-June and so far, ice conditions are looking just fine.

Cambridge Bay_we re OK_from Joe Prins

There is enough ice where there needs to be ice for polar bears to gorge themselves on new-born ringed and bearded seals – and that’s really all that matters. More ice off Labrador means more hunting ground for the Davis Strait polar bears that depend on the tens of thousands of young harp seals born this year off the Front.

Harp seal pup_DFO Newfoundland
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Most Beaufort polar bears swim from ice floe to floe during breakup, study shows

swimming3_USGS

You may have seen the headlines in Canadian news outlets over the last 2 days.
“Polar bears swimming farther as sea ice recedes, study shows”

“Melting sea ice forces polar bears to swim longer, farther: study”  [“Bear biologist Andrew Derocher says the forced swims are particularly hard on mothers with young cubs”]

“Polar bears swimming longer, farther because of melting sea ice, study finds”

Oddly, none of the above news reports said where the paper was published or mentioned the name of the lead author – only University of Alberta co-author Andrew Derocher was interviewed (see the only press release I could find here, issued by the San Diego Zoo where the lead author is now employed).[update: CBC ran another story a day later that corrected these omissions]

But what did the study actually say?

Significantly, no bears died while swimming during the two lowest sea ice extent summers since 1979 and no evidence was presented that swims were “particularly hard on mothers with young cubs.” The quotes from the paper below sum it up for Beaufort Sea (BS) bears (the inclusion of Hudson Bay (HB) bears in this study seems gratuitous and potentially misleading, since only a few swam anyway – only 15 out of 59):

“….91% (91/100) of the swims in the BS occurred before the annual September minimum sea ice extent had been reached.  In the BS, 81% (29/36) of swims started and ended in pack ice…

So, despite what may be implied during media moments, Beaufort Sea polar bears were  not frantically trying to reach the sea ice from land so that they could attempt to keep feeding over the summer – most of their swimming was done during breakup in July and August from one bit of pack ice to another and they showed no evidence of harm from doing so. Map from the study and more quotes below.
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Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – new crop of tagged bears for 2016

Five more bears were tagged near the Southern Beaufort Sea coast last month, all in the western portion of the coast where Chukchi Sea bears are often encountered. They join the one female who seems to have made a den way out over the continental shelf, where she’s been all winter.

putting_collar_on_polar_bear_slider_USGS

This is the March 2016 follow-up to my post on the July 2013 track map for female polar bears being followed by satellite in the Beaufort Sea by the US Geological Survey (USGS) – “Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice.”

Five tagged bears are relatively few compared to eight last spring, and thirteen in 2013 [added to 7 from the previous year for a total of twenty, which were down to 13 by June]  but the same as five tagged in 2014.  This spring, three of the USGS tagged bears have glue-on transmitters, which means they are either males or juvenile bears rather than females (which are fitted with 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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