Category Archives: Sea ice habitat

Svalbard finds tranquilizing & removing problem polar bears comes with risks to bears

In Svalbard, Norway, it is routine practice to chase polar bears away from settlements with snow machines and helicopters, then tranquilize and relocate them if necessary but in late January this approach led to the death of a young male bear.

Svalbard pb visits Longyearbyen 28 Dec 2019 ICEPEOPLE

Necropsy results released 26 March 2020 revealed that the two year old bear, who had wandered into and around Longyearbyen multiple times in late January, was captured after a prolonged helicopter chase but died enroute as it was flown north to Nordaustlandet (see map below) from circulatory failure due to administering anesthesia after the prolonged stress of being chased.

Video here of the bear being chased out of Longyearbyen by helicopter (photo above is of the New Year’s bear). Longyearbyen has had more problems than usual with polar bears this winter due to the unusually extensive sea ice off the west coast of Svalbard. Polar bears are particularly dangerous in winter and with the abundance of bears in recent years many Arctic communities are at risk with each having to find their own solutions.

In the wee hours of New Years Day 2020 a fat Svalbard polar bear was shot because of persistent visits to downtown Longyearbyen and the public was outraged. A few weeks later a bear attacked a dogsled loaded with tourists. The death of the young bear in late January in the course of removing it (rather than shooting it) is a reminder that tranquilizing a polar bear, especially after a prolonged chase, can be as lethal as shooting it.

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Winter sea ice maximum extent on March 5 was the highest since 2013

The most positive thing that US National Snow and Ice Data Center sea ice experts could say about this year’s winter sea ice maximum was that it wasn’t a record breaker. But it provides ample polar bear habitat when the bears need it most: just before the critical spring feeding season.

Sea ice extent 2020 March 5_sea ice maximum called_15 point 05 mkm2 NSIDC 24 March

In fact, they said: “The 2020 maximum sea ice extent is the eleventh lowest in the 42-year satellite record, but the highest since 2013.”  All that winter ice is essential polar bear habitat just before the critical spring feeding season (Crockford 2019, 2020) and it’s one of the reasons that polar bears are thriving.

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Polar bears prowling Newfoundland come on top of coronavirus fears

On Tuesday 17 March 2020, several polar bears were reported in and around the community of St. Anthony on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, adding another threat on top of coronavirus concerns in the province. The photo below is from a 2018 Newfoundland sighting from the same region: none are available for the current report.

NP-PolarBearSighting 2018-6_large

There have been no reports of trouble but locals will have to stay vigilant to remain safe, which since 2008 has been a common concern from late winter to early spring. In 2012 in this area, a bear was shot after it destroyed homes and attacked livestock; another bear was shot the next week in the same area. And in 2016 and 2017, a bear had to be shot to protect residents. Bears at this time of year are in hunting mode, which is why my polar bear attack thriller novel, EATEN, is set in March.

Newfoundland Great Northern Peninsula map

Current sea ice conditions below.

UPDATE 22 March 2020: “Just after 1 p.m. on March 21, the RCMP St. Anthony advised they blocked off Goose Cove Road, St. Anthony, as a polar bear has been sighted in the area. Wildlife is en route to assess the situation. In the interest of public safety residents are asked to stay away from this area.” From Saltwire here. Another report on the same sighting here.

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Baffin Bay polar bears are abundant and the population is stable, study scientist admits

An article by CBC News today (3 March 2020) is a surprisingly well-balance report on a recently published paper by Kristin Laidre and colleagues on their work on Baffin Bay polar bears that I discussed last month. It presents the Inuit perspective that polar bears are currently abundant in the area and the population stable despite less summer sea ice and some documented declines in body weight and at least one scientist conceded this is indeed true.

polarbearatthulerobindavies-500x349-sm

Fat polar bear, summer 2012 near Thule, NW Greenland (Baffin Bay subpopulation). Robin Davies photo.

However, the CBC writer still left out the most critical caveat included in the paper about the study: that factors other than changes in sea ice could have affected the body condition and litter size data that the authors documented but they didn’t look at anything except sea ice. This automatically means the conclusions are scientifically inconclusive.

See some quotes below from the CBC article and the caveat from the paper. Continue reading

Svalbard Norway now has more polar bear habitat than it did two decades ago

Sea ice around Svalbard, Norway at the end of February 2020 is way above average, as the graph below shows – with more polar bear habitat now than there has been in two decades.

Svalbard ice extent 2020 Feb 28 graph_NIS

Some comparison charts below show that the graph above includes some very high ice years in the 1980s (reaching that dotted line above the mean) for which only global charts are available.

However, contrary to suggestions that more Svalbard ice is better for polar bears, there is no evidence that low extent of sea ice habitat in winter or summer over the last two decades harmed polar bear health, reproductive performance, or abundance. In fact, polar bear numbers in 2015 were 42% higher than they were in 2004 (although not a significant increase, statistically speaking) and most bears were found to be in excellent condition.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

This suggests a return to more extensive ice to the Svalbard region in winter will have little impact on the health of the entire Barents Sea subpopulation, although it might change where pregnant females are able to make their maternity dens if ice forms early enough in the fall. In other words, the population should continue to grow as it has been doing since the bears were protected by international treaty in 1973.

UPDATE 3 March 2020: According to 28 February tweet by the Norwegian Ice Service, which I just saw today, “the last time there was this much sea ice around Svalbard on this day of the year [28 February] was 2004“. Somehow, I missed 2004 when I was looking through the archive, so I have modified the text below accordingly; see the 2004 chart below and here.

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State of the Polar Bear Report 2019: Are polar bear researchers hiding good news?

International Polar Bear Day is a good day to ask: Are polar bear researchers hiding good news? Extended lags in publishing polar bear counts and a failure to publish data on female polar bear body weights and cub survival in Western Hudson Bay for more than 25 years make it look like polar bear researchers are delaying and suppressing good news.

StatePB2019 cover image

In particular, the failure to report the data on cub survival and weights of female bears suggests that these health measures have not declined over the last two decades as claimed. If these figures are indeed the strongest evidence that sea ice loss due to climate change is harming Western Hudson Bay polar bears, why on earth have they not been made public? And why won’t a single journalist ask to see that data?
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Claims polar bear cannibalism on the rise in Russian Arctic not supported by facts

The Guardian today expanded on a story published in the Moscow Times that quotes a Russian scientist claiming cannibalism among polar bears is on the rise in the Russian Arctic. However, the scientist offered no numbers to support this claim and there is no suggestion he had done a study on this phenomenon.

Cannibalism video 2015 Nat Geo_off Baffin Island

As I’ve said before, incidents of cannibalism cannot be said to be increasing because there is no scientific baseline for which recent occurrences can be compared. Scattered anecdotal reports of any behaviour cannot be touted as evidence for a trend even though they may be of interest and worth recording.

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