Category Archives: Sea ice habitat

Four years of PolarBearScience and polar bear habitat for ‘Christmas in July’

The traditional gift for a 4th anniversary is flowers, so to celebrate 4 years of blogging at PolarBearScience, I’m highlighting a CBC article from last year that featured the work of photographer Dennis Fast, who captured some fantastic images of polar bears cavorting in a field of fireweed near Churchill (see screencap below from the 2015 CBC feature, more at the DailyMail for 21 August 2015). Great photography – it deserves another look.

Churchill pbs in wildflowers_CBC feature_August 2015

Hard to imagine that four years have passed! Cheers to Hilary Ostrov (who blogs at The view from here) for getting me over my initial frustrations with WordPress – without which I’d never have made it this far – and for her much-appreciated typo alerts [Hilary is still dealing with on-going health issues but we talk on the phone from time to time.]

And thanks of course to my readers, who’ve made it all worthwhile. I truly appreciate all your tips and feedback. The word is getting out, via tweets and retweets, reblogging, personal blog and Facebook discussions, as well as links back to particular posts in the comments of news articles and other internet content, and straight up media mentions. The sum of it all has brought us to this point: 495 posts, over 764,000 views, and more than 411,000 visitors. Not too shabby for a single issue science blog, eh?

I thought of adding a Tip Jar button for next year, but decided against it – instead, if you’d like to support my efforts here, you can buy my polar bear attack novel (give it as a gift if you’re not keen on this type of fiction). I’d be just as grateful. See the sidebar for the link.

But back to business – below find sea ice maps of polar bear habitat at 25 July (‘Christmas in July’), this year as well as some previous years.
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Sea ice habitat Canada update for 23 July 2016 vs. 2014 & the start of bear problems

Sea ice breakup is always a little bit different year to year but since I have the maps archived, take a look at the differences and similarities at this date for this year compared to 2014…

Sea ice extent Canada 2016 July 23_CIS

Sea ice extent Canada 2014 July 23 CIS

Is there evidence that any polar bears – say Western Hudson Bay bears, for example – were negatively affected by sea ice levels in 2014? Not that I’ve heard. In fact, quite the opposite.

Polar bear guide and blogger Kelsey Eliasson, writing from Churchill, Manitoba, had this to say about the condition of bears and freeze-up that year (16 Nov. 2014):

“With these families appearing [heading out to the ice], it really sums up at just what a productive season this has been for the western Hudson Bay population. Any guide who knows their stuff will tell you this was a banner year for cubs, one we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Meanwhile, bears are starting to come ashore and cause a bit of grief:

Southern Hudson Bay (two days ago): “Polar bear shot after wandering through Kashechewan” [see map below for location: the bear shot was a cub that appears to have been separated from its mother and sibling, who were spotted several km away not causing any trouble]

Iqaliut, Baffin Island (this morning): “Polar bear rips 6 tents pitched in Iqaluit park”

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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