Category Archives: Sea ice habitat

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
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

More politics of polar bears courtesy WWF: impaled polar bear sculpture

The offensively tasteless “art” produced by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, for the specific purpose of influencing politics has reappeared.

‘Unbearable’ is a portable exhibit originally designed for the Paris COP21 climate talks in December 2015 but here it is again in Copenhagen. [h/t Tom Nelson]

It’s simply the Politics of Polar Bears on a global scale that has no basis in science: polar bear numbers have not declined as CO2 has risen. Jens Galschiøt’s tasteless and costly message funded by WWF is not much better than Plane Stupid’s 2009 ad of polar bears falling from the sky (see below). It’s just about as asinine and not supported by science. Continue reading

Polar bear biologists imply “summer sea ice” and “sea ice” are synonymous

According to sea ice experts, winter sea ice habitat for polar bears is not expected to decline at all by 2050 and the critical spring sea ice that polar bears need for gorging on young seals and for mating is not predicted to change much (Durner et al. 2007, 2009), which is why computer modelled predictions about the dire future for polar bears only assessed the potential future effects of declining summer sea ice (e.g. Amstrup et al. 2007; Stirling and Derocher 2012). Note spring is April-June.

Female with cubs Beaufort_USFWS credit 2007 w label_sm

See if that fact is clear in the interview responses by out-spoken polar bear biologists that has just been published in the polar bear portion (“Beyond the polar bear”) of this year’s University of Alberta magazine spring climate change feature. If you can get past the “canaries in the coal mine” opener…
Continue reading

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.”

Continue reading

Southern Hudson Bay polar bears are not starving to death

Reposted from 23 March 2016: Despite the fact that the polar bears of Southern Hudson Bay (SHB) live further south year round than any others, a recent study found their average body weight has declined relatively little since the 1980s. There has been no decline in the size of the population over that time either.

James Bay female and cub_Ontaro Govt

Remarkably – despite what we are told about how critical breakup dates are to polar bear health and survival in Hudson Bay – this study found that for SHB bears, the small decline in body condition index correlated only with freeze-up dates, not breakup dates or length of the ice-free season. They also found that regional breakup and freeze-up dates relevant to polar bears in this area was the day when ice cover reached 5% (not 50%).

In other words, SHB polar bears left the ice (or returned to it) when the average ice cover near the coast was about 5%. This finding is yet more evidence that the meteorological definition of “breakup” (date of 50% ice cover) used by many researchers (see discussion here) is not appropriate for describing the seasonal movements of polar bears on and off shore.

The news (two weeks after this post originally went up, see also here), however, is about the bit of weight decline, hyped to the maximum.

Continue reading

Late winter surge in sea ice habitat and the resilience of Svalbard polar bears

The Barents Sea – and Svalbard in particular – has had very little sea ice this winter but recent evidence suggests pregnant females adapted by moving east to Franz Josef Land to have their cubs. The surge in ice that’s come over the last few weeks will, however, be welcome habitat for the critical hunt of fat newborn seals that takes place primarily in April and May.

Svalbard polar bear_NP015991-isbjorn-JA

It was only last fall that Norwegian biologist Jon Aars (photo above taken by him in August 2015) was touting the fat condition of Svalbard-area polar bears he and his team saw in August and admitted the population had increased by a whopping 42% since 2004 – despite dire predictions of a drastic decline. In fact, 2014/2015 was a great year for the area’s polar bears.

However, in the fall of 2015 sea ice was so late forming around Svalbard that it seemed impossible that any females would get to traditional denning grounds on the east coast in time to give birth. There was no sea ice to speak of until late December, so it seemed virtually certain that all females had gone to Franz Josef Land further east (in Russia) – as they are known to do – to utilized its alternative denning sites.

It’s called resilience – the ability to shift behaviour in response to changing conditions. In this case, all indications are that shifting den locations to Franz Josef Land is a long-standing response of Svalbard area polar bears to low ice conditions. This shift does not even require a movement outside their subpopulation boundaries, let alone a movement outside the ill-defined “sea ice ecoregions” originally defined by Steven Amstrup and colleagues (2008) to support their prediction that polar bears will likely be extinct by 2100, taken up later by others since.

Some polar bear specialists appear to believe that if Barents Sea conditions are not precisely what they were in the 1980s (examples here and here), polar bears cannot possibly survive. But the bears are showing them otherwise – and demonstrating how they likely survived previous warm periods like the Holocene Optimum ~9,000 years ago and the Eemian Interglacial ~115,000-130,000 years ago (CERQA 2014:66) without population numbers getting anywhere near extinction levels.
Continue reading