Tag Archives: Aars

No extirpation looms for Svalbard polar bears: no pending catastrophe in Norway

Despite a wild claim that a “slow Arctic freeze” this year increases the risk that polar bears will become extinct, sea ice charts show ice returning earlier than it has for decades everywhere except the Svalbard area of the Barents Sea. That’s good news for pregnant polar bears. Although Svalbard is without ice, that’s been true for so many years that pregnant Svalbard females long ago abandoned the use of islands they used in good ice years and now make their dens in the Franz Josef Land archipelago to the east (which is still within the Barents Sea subpopulation region).

Svalbard polar bear fall 2015_Aars

Polar bears give birth around 25 December each year, so pregnant females prefer to be snug in a safe den by around the end of November at the latest. That’s been possible for all regions of the Arctic this year, including the Barents Sea — because sea ice returned to Franz Josef Land weeks ago, even though Svalbard is still ice-free.

Franz_Josef_Land_location_wikipedia

Major denning areas in Russia, including Wrangel Island, have been surrounded by ice since the middle of the month, allowing pregnant females that did not remain on shore over the summer to return to make maternity dens. Elsewhere, bears that have been confined to shore over the ice-free season (such as along Hudson Bay and Baffin Island in eastern Canada) returned to the ice to hunt seals weeks ago after the earliest freeze-up in more than two decades.

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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.
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Survey Results: Svalbard polar bear numbers increased 42% over last 11 years

Results of this fall’s Barents Sea population survey have been released by the Norwegian Polar Institute and they are phenomenal: despite several years with poor ice conditions, there are more bears now (~975) than there were in 2004 (~685) around Svalbard (a 42 30% increase) and the bears were in good condition.

Svalbard polar bear fall 2015_Aars

Oddly, in a September report right after the count, biologist Jon Aars reported them in “excellent” condition, with some of them “as fat as pigs.” I guess “good” is the same as “excellent.”

Bears in the Russian portion of the Barents Sea were not counted this year because the Russians would not allow it; the previous total count, from 2004, was 2,650 (range ~1900-3600) for the entire region.

map-BarentsSea

In the map above (courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group), the Svalbard archipelago is on the left (Norwegian territory) and the archipelagos of Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya on the right (Russian territory).

Oddly, the comments made by lead researcher Jon Aars to a Norwegian newspaper (in English), which picked this up yesterday (“Polar bears make a comeback” ), were far more positive than those in the press release (which is likely all that western media will see).

UPDATE 24 December 2015: The new population survey number for Svalbard is actually a 42% increase over the 2004 number. Thanks to Arvid Oen, a WUWT reader, for alerting Anthony Watts to the error, and to Anthony for passing it along. Title and text fixed accordingly, apologies to any others who have picked this up. Cheers and Merry Christmas.

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Barents Sea polar bears adapt to changing sea ice conditions

Sea ice development in eastern Svalbard this fall is lagging well behind the rest of the Arctic. Several polar bear researchers (e.g., Andrew Derocher here and here) have recently been raising the alarm that this might be devastating for Barents Sea females looking for suitable denning sites.

Barents Sea ice 2015 Dec 2_NIS_sm

The implication is that pregnant polar bear females are inflexible – so fixated on one location to give birth that they are unable or unwilling to choose an alternative if conditions preclude using their preferred location this year. However, the available facts do not support such a pessimistic attitude.
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Barents Sea polar bears in excellent condition say Norwegian biologists

Conditions this year (2015) in the Barents Sea were excellent according to the polar bear researchers who work there (“Polar bears were as fat as pigs”).

Barents Sea bear 2015 August Cobbing_NPI
A new survey just completed for a population count showed the bears were are in excellent condition – except the injured ones, of course, which some news organizations are promoting as evidence of harm from global warming-induced sea ice changes because an activist photographer  – not scientists – said so.

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Polar bear behaviour gets the animal tragedy porn treatment – two new papers

Recently, several polar bear biologists have teamed up with photographers to get pictures of starving bears into the scientific literature – and picked up by the media, with mixed results.

doi:10.3402/polar.v34.26612
For the second time in five years, polar bear biologist Ian Stirling has teamed up with a photographer to give unwarranted scientific credence to an anecdotal account of polar bear behaviour. It included a picture of a pitifully thin animal  (classic animal tragedy porn) and was framed to increase alarm over predicted effects of global warming. It got little media attention.

His Norwegian colleagues Jon Aars and Magnus Andersen have just done the same with a bear caught eating a white-beaked dolphin (photo above) – but this time the media took the bait.

Update 13 June 2015 – Information added on white-beaked dolphin distribution, sea ice conditions in 2014 and a correction. See below.
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IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group says its global population estimate was “a qualified guess”

Last week (May 22), I received an unsolicited email from Dr. Dag Vongraven, the current chairman of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).

pbsg logo

The email from Vongraven began this way:

Dr. Crockford

Below you’ll find a footnote that will accompany a total polar bear population size range in the circumpolar polar bear action plan that we are currently drafting together with the Parties to the 1973 Agreement. This might keep you blogging for a day or two.” [my bold]

It appears the PBSG have come to the realization that public outrage (or just confusion) is brewing over their global population estimates and some damage control is perhaps called for. Their solution — bury a statement of clarification within their next official missive (which I have commented upon here).

Instead of issuing a press release to clarify matters to the public immediately, Vongraven decided he would let me take care of informing the public that this global estimate may not be what it seems.

OK, I’ll oblige (I am traveling in Russia on business and finding it very hard to do even short posts – more on that later). The footnote Vongraven sent is below, with some comments from me. You can decide for yourself if the PBSG have been straight-forward about the nature of their global population estimates and transparent about the purpose for issuing it.
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