Arctic sea ice habitat for polar bears is like a big pond that dries up partially in summer

What’s a good analogy for sea ice as essential polar bear habitat? Biologist Andrew Derocher claims that the soil in a forest is appropriate, because without the soil you can’t have the forest ecosystem. However, that’s a specious comparison because the amount of soil in a forest does not change markedly with the seasons the way that Arctic sea ice does.

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A much better analogy is a big pond that dries up a bit every summer. The amount of habitat available to sustain aquatic plants, amphibians and insects is reduced in the dry season but many species have special adaptations for surviving reduced water availability. For the rest of the year, however, the pond provides an abundant and non-limiting habitat for all the creatures and plants that live there.

Beaver pond USFWS

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New ice on Hudson Bay a week earlier than 2017: another early freeze-up ahead?

Last year, an early freeze-up of Western Hudson Bay sea ice almost ruined the Polar Bear Week campaign devised by Polar Bears International to drum up donation dollars and public sympathy for polar bear conservation. Many bears were on the ice hunting by 7-8 November in 2017 before the celebratory week was done (the average date that bears left the ice in the 1980s): sea ice charts suggest the same may be happening this year.

Polar bears off Churchill_2000-11-20_wikipedia

Ice is forming along the Hudson Bay coast more than a week earlier than it was last year (barely discernible on the map below but detailed ice charts show it clearly), consistent with early build-up of ice in the Canadian Archipelago, East Greenland, and Foxe Basin since mid-September.

Sea ice Canada 2018 Oct 23

The question is: will the ice continue to build over the next few weeks or get blown offshore? See the ice charts below for this year and 2017.
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Scientific study finds polar bears excel at diving, contradicting previous expert opinion

A recent study by Norwegian biologist Karen Lone and colleagues, who tagged 57 polar bear females with sensors around Svalbard, discovered that polar bears can dive to a maximum depth of 13.9m and can swim long distances across open water without rest. Contrary to previous claims, polar bears are excellent divers and their breath-holding ability did not seem to limit how deep they could dive.

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From the abstract of the new paper by Lone and colleagues (Lone et al. 2018):

“Some bears undertook notable long-distance-swims. Dive depths up to 13.9 m were recorded, with dives ≥5 m being common. The considerable swimming and diving capacities of polar bears might provide them with tools to exploit aquatic environments previously not utilized.”

Compare the above statement to one made by Stirling and van Meurs (2015), after describing a 3 minute dive video-taped during an aquatic stalk of a bearded seal, also in the Svalbard area:

“…increased diving ability cannot evolve rapidly enough to compensate for the increasing difficulty of hunting seals because of the rapidly declining availability of sea ice during the open-water period resulting from climate warming.” [my bold]

These two papers really show the difference between using anecdotal accounts as if they were evidence of species-wide physical abilities and doing a scientific study on the physical ability of interest.

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New paper provides no evidence that polar bears ate whale carcasses to survive Eemian interglacial

Contrary to what the misleading press release implies, an entirely speculative new paper by polar bear specialists Kristin Laidre and Ian Stirling (among others) presents zero evidence that polar bear consumed whale carcasses during the last warm Interglacial (Eemian, ca. 115-130kya). And contrary to the impression that Eemian conditions were very challenging for polar bears, simulations from the single paleo sea ice simulation paper these authors cite show the ice-free season over most of the Eemian was less severe than today in the polar basin, with no reason for polar bears to scavenge extensively on large whale carcasses.

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Polar bears are shown scavenging on the carcass of a dead bowhead whale that washed ashore on Wrangel Island, Russia. Credit: Chris Collins/Heritage Expeditions

This is yet another paper posing as science co-authored by Stirling that uses anecdotal accounts of behaviour to send a message about evolutionary capabilities of polar bears (Stirling and van Meurs 2015). With little or nothing to back it up, the paper’s real purpose is to convey Stirling’s opinion that past polar bear survival is irrelevant to understanding future polar bear survival — and that all the bears are gonna die unless we do something about carbon dioxide emissions generated by fossil fuel use.

Is it a coincidence that the Summary for Policy Makers was issued by the IPCC over the weekend (not the report with the science in it but the document that all politicians agreed were acceptable)? Look no further than the last sentence of National Geographic’s article on this story, which includes a quote from lead author Laidre and a link to the magazine’s interpretation of the new IPCC report:

“Laidre put it even more bluntly: “If you want polar bears around we need sea ice, and loss of sea ice closely tied to our activities and our fossil fuel emissions.” (Learn about the IPCC’s dire new climate report.)” 

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Now at least 10 years with sea ice at 2050-like levels yet polar bears are still abundant

We’ve hit the seasonal Arctic sea ice minimum for this year, called this morning by US NSIDC for 19th and 23rd of Septmeber: 4.59 mkm2, the same extent as 2008 and 2010. This is not a “ho-hum” year for polar bears: it means that since 2007, they have triumphed through 10 or 11 years1 with summer ice coverage below 5.0 mkm2 —  levels that in 2007 were expected to cause catastrophic declines in numbers.

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Summer sea ice below 5.0 mkm2 were not expected to occur until about 2050, according to 2005/2006 sea ice models and polar bear specialists at the US Geological Survey (USGS). Polar bear survival models predicted 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would disappear when ice levels reached this threshold for 8 out of 10 years (Amstrup et al. 2007, 2008; Hunter 2007) but polar bears have been more resilient than expected (Crockford 2017, 2018; Crockford and Geist 2018). In fact, in many areas (like the Chukchi Sea, Barents Sea and Foxe Basin) polar bears are thriving despite dramatic declines in summer sea ice coverage (Aars et al. 2017; ACSWG 2018; Peacock et al. 2013; Regehr et al. 2016; Stapleton et al. 2016).

The sea ice models used to support the addition of polar bears to the US Endangered Species List as ‘threatened’ with extinction suggested sea ice levels from 3-5 mkm2 would not occur unti mid-century, yet they dropped before the ink was dry on the 2007 USGS Reports (ACIA 2005; Hassol 2004; Holland et al. 2006; Solomon et al. 2007; Zhang and Walsh 2006).

The ice extent charts from the University of Bremen (below) show ice that’s 50% concentration or greater at the date of the seasonal minimum (19th September): what polar bear specialists define as preferred habitat (Amstrup et al. 2007).

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Compare the minimum shown above to the coverage predicted for 2050 and to coverage at the minimum in 2012 (the NSIDC image is here):

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Inuit hunters frustrated by polar bear conservation rules that put their lives at risk

‘The rules are taking over Inuit tradition and the bears are taking over Inuit. We’re just watching in the distance, afraid of these bears because they’re free to do whatever they want.’ says Brian Aglukark, after two fatal polar bear attacks this summer (CBC,  24 September 2018).

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Here’s an excerpt (my bold): continue reading

Polar bears that killed Foxe Basin hunter in August were in good condition, say officials

Just in from NunatsiaqNews (6 September 2018): The polar bears that killed Foxe Basin resident Darryl Kaunak were in good condition, as were the bears who approached the group of hunters after the fact. And the bear that mauled Arviat resident Aaron Gibbons in early July was an adult male in “fair” condition, according to necropsy results.

Foxe Basin polar_bears_rowley_island_Stapleton 2012 press photo labeled sm

In all, no evidence that lack of sea ice was to blame. Quotes below.

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