Tag Archives: Arctic

Late fall polar bear habitat 2020 compared to some previous years

It’s time to look at sea ice habitat at 15 December (Julian Day 350), now that virtually all bears except pregnant females throughout the Arctic are either out on the sea ice attempting to hunt for seals or hunkered down against the darkness.

As is usual at this time of year, the Canadian Archipelago, the Beaufort, East Siberian and Laptev Seas are well covered in ice (see regions on map below). As for the rest, despite what one polar bear specialist has implied there is no evidence that a slower-than-usual fall freeze-up in the other peripheral seas of the Arctic negatively affects polar bear health or survival.

In fact, because of the attractiveness of the ice edge for seals in the fall, as I discussed last month, it’s possible that the longer the ice edge persists in fall, the more successful polar bears will be in hunting seals – except those above the Arctic Circle where lack of daylight from early November may cause polar bears to hunker down and rest rather than try to hunt through the darkness. But we’ll never know for sure, because bears have never been studied at this time of year – experts simply make assumptions about what happens (e.g. Stirling and Oritsland 1995).

Sea ice thickness also varies year to year throughout the season but does not matter much to polar bears, who hunt most successfully in first year ice less than 2m in thickness, which comprises all of the regions currently purple in the ice thickness chart below.

Hudson Bay

This year at mid-December, there was more ice than usual in central and southern Hudson Bay (below) and somewhat less than usual in the eastern portion.

However, the ice is forming so fast now that by 18 December there was hardly any open water remaing over Hudson Bay and the ice to the north was solidifying (below). Recall that a similar freeze-up pattern left a pod of a dozen or so killer whales stranded in mid-January 2013 and killed four others in 2016. Such ice-entrapment suggests that despite a ‘warming’ Arctic, freeze-up patterns would have to change very dramatically for Hudson Bay to be an attractive place for killer whales. A recent DFO report concluded:

Killer whale ice entrapments are almost always fatal and can wipe out entire family groups, with long-lasting demographic impacts. Ice entrapments could therefore slow Arctic killer whale range expansions, particularly in areas where killer whales that are unfamiliar with sea-ice patterns fail to exit prior to ice formation in winter.

Compare Hudson Bay weekly stage of development charts (below) for this year back to 2014, from the Canadian Ice Service archives. You’ll see that this year appears to have more extensive 1st year ice (light green, ca. 30-70 cm) than any other year (although last year had almost as much) and that 2016 was notable as being a very late freeze-up year:

Western Hudson Bay polar bears with collars or tags deployed by Andrew Derocher and his University of Alberta crew (below) are spread out over the ice of the bay (two on land are denning females), a number are on the thickest ice in the north but others are on thinner ice to the south and east:

Baffin Bay, foxe basin, and Davis Strait

Ice covereage in the Canadian Eastern Arctic at mid-December is about average this year, according to CIS charts – only a bit of red and pink indicating ‘below normal’ in the east (off of Greenland):

Pack ice has moved down from the north through Baffin Bay into Davis Strait (below) and will soon be off the coast of Labrador, which has somewhat less ice than usual this year at mid-December:

The ice off Labrador at this time is shorefast ice developing and thickening in place (below). As far as we know, few polar bears summer on the northern Labrador coast, so this late ice development is unlikely to affect local bears. However, pack ice will move down during January and February until it engulfs the area north of Newfoundland, bringing some polar bears with it.

Greenland and Barents Sea

Freeze-up in the Greenland Sea is progressing a bit faster than usual for the last five years (below), but not remarkably so:

Ice cover in the Barents Sea (below) has been slow so far but has been progressing faster over the last few weeks. There is now ice off the east coast of Novaya Zemlya, shorefast ice that should allow any bears summering there to hunt for seals just as Western Hudson Bay bears do during early freeze-up stages. Within the next few weeks, the Arctic pack ice will move south into the Kara Sea, allowing bears to move more freely.Ice off Svalbard has been much below normal (below), as it has been for years now, which is why virtually all Barents Sea pregnant females currently make maternity dens in Franz Josef Land or on the sea ice to the north. These alternative areas for safely giving birth is the primary reason that the much reduced sea ice around Svalbard in recent years has not impacted Barents Sea polar bear health or survival.

Kara Sea

Ice cover in the Kara Sea at 15 December (below) is lower compared to the last five years but it’s unclear how much effect this will have on local polar bears.

Animals that have opted to spend the ice-free season on Novaya Zemlya or on the Russian mainland will have had a long wait for ice, but those that spent the summer on the Severnya Zemlya archipelago to the east had access to sea ice before the end of November. There has been no word from Belushaya Guba on whether the polar bear problems they had because of poorly maintained garbage dumps in December 2018 that went on until February 2019 have recurred this year.

Despite what Andrew Derocher claims (below), there is no evidence that slightly less sea ice in the fall is detrimental to polar bear health or survival in the Kara Sea or elsewhere. It is possible that it might but no one has studied it, so to suggest that low sea ice cover is ‘trouble’ for polar bears at this time of year is very misleading.

Chukchi/Bering Sea

Sea ice cover over the Chukchi Sea is a bit lower than it has been over the last few years, about as low as it was in 2017 (below).

Chukchi Sea polar bears at 14 December (below) had abundant sea ice habitat.

In 2016, when Chukchi polar bears were counted for the first time, there was a similar amount of ice at this time of year (below):

References

Stirling, I. and Øritsland, N. A. 1995. Relationships between estimates of ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations in the Canadian Arctic. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 52: 2594 – 2612. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/f95-849#.VNep0y5v_gU

Speculation on ice-trapped whales: science-based fiction vs. dishonest science

Ice entrapment of whales is known to happen across the Arctic, including Davis Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. How common such phenomena were in the past or might be in the future are subjects of conjecture. However, while speculation is the bread-and-butter of science-based fiction, it is the bane of peer-reviewed science.

I’ve written two novels informed by science set a bit in the future (2025-2026) in Eastern Canada: EATEN was set in Newfoundland and my latest book UPHEAVAL –see a review here – is set in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In UPHEAVAL, one of the issues I explore is ice entrapment of large whales, like North Atlantic right whales. I speculate in the story whether carcasses of ice-killed whales might provide a powerful enough attraction to lure Davis Strait polar bears down from Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if they did, what might be the repercussions of that shift in distribution.

Here I argue that a novel is the appropriate place for this kind of speculation and researchers who offer such conjecture to the public in a way that conflates a science-informed guess with evidence-based fact risks eroding public trust in science.

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Potential impact of the second-lowest sea ice minimum since 1979 on polar bear survival

The annual summer sea ice minimum in the Arctic has been reached and while the precise extent has not yet been officially determined, it’s clear this will be the ‘second lowest’ minimum (after 2012) since 1979. However, as there is no evidence that polar bears were harmed by the 2012 ‘lowest’ summer sea ice this year’s ‘second-lowest’ is unlikely to have any negative effect.

This is not surprising since even 2nd lowest leaves summer ice coverage in the Arctic at the level sea ice experts wrongly predicted in 2005 wouldn’t be seen until 2050 (ACIA 2005; Amstrup et al. 2007; Wang and Overland 2012) and this is the same amount of summer sea ice that polar bear experts incorrectly predicted would cause 2/3 of all polar bears to disappear. My book explains how it all went wrong: The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened

In this summary of how polar bears have been doing since the the lowest sea ice minimum in 2012, I show that contrary to all predictions, polar bears have been thriving despite reduced summer ice in the Barents, Chukchi and Southern Beaufort Seas, and because of unexpectedly short ice-free seasons in Hudson Bay and less multiyear ice in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

UPDATE 21 September (10:20 PT): NSIDC has just announced the Arctic sea ice extent minimum (preliminary) for 2020 at 3.74 mkm2 reached on 15 September. See full report here.

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Emperor penguin numbers rise as biologists petition for IUCN Red List upgrade

Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes fosteri) populations in 2019 were found to have grown by up to 10% since 2009 – to as many as 282,150 breeding pairs (up from about 256,500) out of a total population of over 600,000 birds (Fretwell et al. 2012; Fretwell and Trathan 2020; Trathan et al. 2020) – despite a loss of thousands of chicks in 2016 when an ice shelf collapsed. Yet, biologists studying this species are currently petitioning the IUCN to upgrade emperor penguins to ‘Vulnerable’ (Trathan et al. 2020), based on models that use the implausible and extreme RCP8.5 ‘worse case climate change scenario (e.g. Hausfather and Peters 2020) that polar bear biologists find so compelling. Not surprisingly, their unscientific models suggest emperor penguins could be close to extinction by 2100 under these unlikely conditions – but if we reduce CO2 emissions via political policy, the penguins will be saved!

Emperor penguins NOAA_Wikipedia 2006 med

Surprisingly, these researchers are going ahead with their petition to have emperor penguins uplisted despite the population increase and the reservations their colleagues expressed in 2018 about using climate change predictions to arrive at a classification of ‘Near Threatened’ for the IUCN Red List assessment (Birdlife International 2018), as noted below in their ‘justification’:

This species is listed as Near Threatened because it is projected to undergo a moderately rapid population decline over the next three generations owing to the projected effects of climate change. However, it should be noted that there is considerable uncertainty over future climatic changes and how these will impact the species.

Like polar bear biologists, some emperor penguin biologists just won’t give up on the prediction they developed back in the mid-2000s that climate change is sure to drive this species to near extinction. For example, Jenouvrier et al. (2009) calculated that there was at least a 36% chance of a 95% or more decline in emperor penguins by 2100 (what they called a “quasi-extinction”) due to changes in sea ice distribution. They suggested a decline of this magnitude would entail a fall from about 6,000 breeding pairs to about 400 in a single colony.  The newest model (Jenouvrier et al. 2020) similarly uses the RCP8.5 ‘worse case’ scenario to predict near-extinction by 2100, as their ‘graphic abstract’ below shows.

Jenouvrier et al 2020 emperor penguin pop decline graphic abstract

This group are also recommending that “the species is listed by the Antarctic Treaty as an Antarctic Specially Protected Species” that would require a Species Action Plan (Trathan et al. 2020). And as co-author Peter Fretwell told the BBC last fall (9 October 2019):

“Everything we know – all the experts, all the models – tells us that Emperors are going to be in real trouble. We need to pull out all the stops to help them. That’s going to be hard because we know the one thing that’s really going to save them is stabilisation of the global climate.”

Sounds like something a polar bear specialist would say. Except that for polar bears, the catastrophe they keep predicting just won’t happen despite the fact that summer Arctic sea ice has been declining faster than anyone expected – so far, an almost 50% decline in ice has already happened yet global polar bear numbers keep slowly increasing (Crockford 2019; 2020).

Book graphics for promotion updated March 2020

I’d suggest that using far-fetched ‘worse case’ scenario predictions to propose an unlikely but scary-sounding future catastrophe isn’t likely to work any better for emperor penguins than it has done for polar bears, especially when the animals keep thriving.

However, some of the papers listed below are open access, so if you’re interested in more details I suggest you have a look. If you’d like a copy of the modelling paper (Jenouvrier et al. 2020), contact me and I’ll send it along. You’ll find more on the emperor penguin conservation issue in this essay by biologist Jim Steele.

References

BirdLife International. 2018. Aptenodytes forsteri. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22697752A132600320. Downloaded on 07 August 2020. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22697752/132600320

Crockford, S.J. 2019. The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London. Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Crockford, S.J. 2020. State of the Polar Bear Report 2019. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 39, London. pdf here.

Fretwell, P.T., LaRue, M.A., Morin, P., Kooyman, G.L., Wienecke, B., Ratcliffe, N., Fox, A.J., Fleming, A.H., Porter, C. and Trathan, P.N. 2012. An emperor penguin population estimate: the first global, synoptic survey of a species from space. PLoS One 7: e33751 [open access] doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033751.

Fretwell, P.T. and Trathan, P.N. 2020. Discovery of new colonies by Sentinel2 reveals good and bad news for emperor penguins. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation [open access], in press. https://doi.org/10.1002/rse2.176

Hausfather, Z. and Peters, G.P. 2020. Emissions – the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading [“Stop using the worst-case scenario for climate warming as the most likely outcome — more-realistic baselines make for better policy”]. Nature 577: 618-620

Jenouvrier, S., Caswell, H., Barbraud, C., Holland, M., Stroeve, J. and Weimerskirch, H. 2009. Demographic models and IPCC climate projections predict the decline of an emperor penguin population. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 106: 1844-1847.

Jenouvrier, S. et al. 2020. The Paris Agreement objectives will likely halt future declines of emperor penguins. Global Change Biology 26(3): 1170-1184. [paywalled] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.14864

Trathan, P.N. and others, including Fretwell, P. T. 2020. The emperor penguin – Vulnerable to projected rates of warming and sea ice loss. Biological Conservation 241:108216. [open access] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108216

10 fallacies about Arctic sea ice & polar bear survival refute misleading ‘facts’

This updated blog post of mine from last year is as pertinent now as it was then: it’s a fully-referenced rebuttal to the misleading ‘facts’ so often presented this time of year to support the notion that polar bears are being harmed due to lack of summer sea ice. Polar Bears International developed ‘Arctic Sea Ice Day’ (15 July) to promote their skewed interpretation of polar bear science at the height of the Arctic melt season. This year I’ve add a ‘Polar Bears and the Arctic Food Chain‘ graphic, which readers are free to download and share. For further information, see “The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened“.

Polar bear top of Arctic food chain 7 July 2020

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New report: Change coming to the Canadian Arctic — but it’s no looming catastrophe

A review of a newly-released (22 April 2020, on Earth Day) report commissioned by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the state of the Arctic seas published today in the National Post is a must read. It highlights the report’s emphasis that while the changes going on in our northern seas are indeed marked, they do not necessarily spell doom.

2019 DFO Arctic Report_Polar Bears from Summary document sent to media

Oddly, polar bears are primarily represented in the report by an overview account of the special case of Western Hudson Bay – an outlier among Canadian subpopulations – that puts special emphasis on the claimed decline in body condition blamed on recent sea ice changes that is not supported by any recent data (Crockford 2020).

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Coronavirus shutdown forces research project to miss critical start of Arctic ice melt

The worldwide coronavirus lockdown has meant that the MOSAiC research project, which deliberately froze the icebreaker Polarstern into the Arctic Sea ice last fall, will miss taking scientific measurements during several critical weeks of the melt season (one of the main reasons for the project).

Polarstern 2020 location as of April 27 to the North of Svalbard_Graphic_courtesy of AWI

According to a report in the High North News (28 April 2020), at 27 April the Polarstern was between Svalbard and the North Pole (map above). In mid-May, the ship will break out of the ice and proceed south to waters off Svalbard (expected to take about a week) to meet up with two German icebreakers for a high-seas exchange of crew and restock provisions, the only option available after the coronovirus lockdown in Svalbard meant the original plans had to be scuttled. And while waiting for the upcoming research upheaval and breaking free of the ice, the crew of the Polarstern recently reported a visit from a polar bear wandering the ice hunting for seals.

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#Homeschooling2020: Polar Bear Facts & Myths is an excellent resource for learning a second language and prices have just been reduced

For all of those parents and grandparents struggling to keep school-aged kids occupied and learning while stuck at home during the coronavirus lock-down (and looking ahead to the summer months!), how about using my Polar Bear Facts & Myths book to practice a second language? The book is short (<800 words), the topic is compelling, and the text is simple. As well as the original English, it's also available in French, German, Norwegian, and Dutch – all translated from English by native speakers. Prices have now been reduced on all versions of this title and several others (note it has taken Amazon two weeks to implement these changes).

FM polar bear day 2017 graphic 1_crockford

Purchase two copies (one in your native language, the other in the language the child has been learning), and let them work their way through. This approach makes it easy for kids to tackle this task on their own. For Canadian kids who must take French, this is an excellent way to brush up on their French reading skills while learning about polar bears and the Arctic. Similarly, for a large number of European kids, it’s a chance to practice their English reading skills.

When they are done, you could 1) ask them to find a polar bear picture online and write a caption in their second language; 2) send me a question that the book hasn’t answered and I will respond on this blog, in English! Other links below.

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Useful relevant science: the bats behind the Covid-19 pandemic

This bit of mammalian science is worth a read, from biologist Matt Ridley’s blog, first published in the Wall Street Journal. And yes, a very few bat species do live above the Arctic Circle in North America and Eurasia but their distributions only overlap with polar bears in the most southern areas of the bear’s range (and none of the bats are the horseshoe variety that carry coronaviruses): along the coasts of southern Labrador and Hudson Bay, the north coast of Newfoundland, and in NW Alaska along the Bering Sea.

The Bats Behind the Pandemic (published 9 April 2020): From Ebola to Covid-19, many of the deadliest viruses to emerge in recent years have the same animal source.

Ridley horsebat

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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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