Tag Archives: Barents Sea

Svalbard polar bear habitat higher than average – here’s what that looks like

Polar bear habitat around Svalbard in the Barents Sea is currently slightly above average for 23 June 2017: this short post records what that amount of ice looks like according to the Norwegian Ice Service (NIS).

Svalbard ice extent 2017 June 23_NIS from archive

Compare to 2015 at the same date, the year that the last polar bear count was conducted for the Svalbard region, when many cubs were seen and the bears were reported in excellent condition:

Svalbard ice extent 2015 June 23_NIS from archive

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IUCN PBSG insists the 2015 Barents Sea polar bear count was not an increase

Similar to the spin on the 2013 Baffin Bay/Kane Basin polar bear population survey, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group now insists the latest count of the Barents Sea subpopulation is not evidence of an increase in numbers since 2004, as the leader of the study announced in 2015.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

This is Part 2 of the big surprises in the latest version of the polar bear status table published by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) on 30 March 2017. See last post here regarding the PBSG population size estimates that no longer concur with the 2015 Red List assessment, including the global total — even though PBSG members wrote the report (Wiig et al. 2015, and its Supplement).

Here I want to focus on the results of subpopulation surveys that were made public after the 2015 Red List assessment was published, particularly the Barents Sea estimate.

While the 2013 Baffin Bay and Kane Basin estimates (SWG 2016) have been added to the new PBSG table, any suggestion that these might indicate population increases are strong discounted. Similarly, contrary to initial reports by the principal investigators of the survey, the PBSG insist that the Barents Sea population has not actually increased since 2004, which you may or many not find convincing.

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Polar bear habitat message for the year end: 2016 Arctic ice extent same as 2010

According to NSIDC daily sea ice interactive graph,  there was ever so slightly more ice on 31 Dec 2016 than on that date in 2010. However, the corresponding ice maps show just how differently that ice was distributed.


Recall that in 2010, there was no huge die-off of polar bears attributed to reduced amounts of sea ice in the fall (or to reduced ice in summer, for that matter) because there was no catastrophic die-off at all.

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Fall Arctic ice growth often differs regionally: 2016 compared to other years

Arctic sea ice is spreading out quickly from its central basin summer refuge – according to this NSIDC Masie ice chart, it has already grown more than 2 mkm2 beyond the annual minimum reached in early September. Ice is already pushing south into the eastern Beaufort and the archipelago of Franz Josef Land in the Barents Sea.


Over the next couple of weeks, shorefast ice will start forming along the coasts of North America and Eurasia (see the first bits off Alaska in the 21 October CIS map below), which will eventually meet the expanding Arctic Basin pack to fill the Basin and Canadian Arctic Archipelago with ice – as it has done for eons.


The evidence from the last decade or so suggests that by the end of October, most of the Arctic north of the 79th parallel (see map below) will be filled with ice – although the Chukchi Sea (north of the Bering Strait) may not fill until sometime in November:


Polar bears usually resume hunting as soon as sea ice conditions permit in the fall, since it’s their last chance to top up their fat reserves before the dark and cold of winter when hunting may become next to impossible.

I’ve copied ice charts from the Masie archives for some previous years at 31 October below.

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Polar bear habitat this fall shaping up fast – more like 2010 than 2007

Arctic sea ice tied 2007 for extent at the September minimum less than 3 weeks ago but with the refreeze proceeding much faster than 2007, seals will soon be returning to the ice edge and polar bears will be back to feeding like they did in 2010.


Sea ice extent less than 5.0 mkm2 lasted less than 6 weeks (23 August – 28 September), according to NSIDC.

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Recent studies show Sept ice of 3-5 mkm2 did not kill polar bears off as predicted

The annual Arctic sea ice minimum for 2016 is imminent and the hand-wringing about polar bear survival has already begun. While this year is shaping up to be another very low sea ice minimum in the Arctic – not as low as 2012 but lower than as low as 2007 (previously the 2nd lowest since 1979) – contrary to predictions, several recent studies show that such low sea ice coverage in summer has had no (or very limited) negative effects on polar bear health and survival. In fact, for polar bears in some areas low summer sea ice has been quite beneficial (although these are not the populations that polar bear specialists predicted would do better).

polar_thin_ice Jessica Robertson_USGS

Since low summer extents of recent magnitude (3.0 – 5.0 mkm2) are clearly not any sort of threat to polar bears, it seems improbable that even an ice-free (≤ 1.0 mkm2) summer (e.g. Wang and Overland 2015) would be devastating to the species [don’t forget Cronin and Cronin 2016: they’ve survived such conditions before] – as long as conditions in spring allow for the necessary concentrated feeding on young seals.

sea-ice-mins_2007_2012_2015_polarbearscienceAbove: Top, minimum at 2012 (16 Sept, 3.41 mkm2, lowest since 1979); Center, 2007 (18 Sept, 4.17 mkm2); Bottom, 2015 (9 Sept, 4.50 mkm2), from NSIDC. Below: sea ice at 10 Sept 2016, 4.137 mkm2 – minimum not yet called).


Recall that in 2006, the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group based their conservation status of ‘vulnerable’ (likely to become threatened within the next 45 years due to reduced habitat) on the predictions of sea ice specialists (see 2008 update here).

Sea ice experts in 2005 predicted such low summer sea ice extents as polar bears have endured since 2007 (3.0 – 5.0 mkm2) would not happen until 2040-2070, at which time PBSG biologists said that >30% of the world’s bears would be gone.

Evidence to the contrary comes from polar bear specialists working in the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Barents Seas – and in Southern Hudson Bay – since 2007. Overall, the latest IUCN Red Book assessment (2015) put the global population size at 22,000-31,000 (or about 26,500).

All of this means that those polar bear experts were wrong: polar bears are more resilient to low summer sea ice conditions than they assumed.

UPDATE 2 January 2017: I’ve added some quotes from the original USGS reports that explicitly state their dire predictions for 2050 that differ from the predictions made by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.
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Five years of polar bear habitat at June 20 around the Arctic

Five years worth of sea ice maps for the same date is hard to come by in this country, since the Canadian Ice Service does not archive their daily sea ice maps. However, due to some forethought, I have at hand ice maps going back to 2012 for the longest day of the year for Canada and archives for other regions provide similar perspective at the solstice.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Regehr photo_March 21 2010_lg

Few photos of polar bears in June likely exist – too early for most bears to come ashore and the ice too unstable for humans to be offshore [photo above is dated March].

Compare the five maps for Canada and eastern Alaska below. Notice the differences for Hudson Bay: it may seem ironic, but 2012 (which had the lowest September minimum since 1979 due to an August storm) had the most typical Hudson Bay breakup/melt pattern compared to previous years. [Keep in mind this recent post about how much ice can remain even when almost none is visible on the ice maps]

In many regions, polar bear hunting efforts are seldom successful after early June because young-of-the-year seal pups have taken to the water to feed, which means the only prey still on the ice are predator-savvy adults and subadults that have an easy time escaping in the rapidly breaking up ice fields. Bears that come ashore in June likely are not missing much – a little less ice than usual at this time of year is not going to make much difference.

Overall, despite doom and gloom predictions we heard in March 2016 (“wintertime extent hits another record low”), sea ice extent (courtesy NSIDC) at 20 June 2016 was the same at this date as it was in 2010 and 2012 at this time of year – which essentially marks the end of the primary feeding period for polar bears (except for those that live in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, where seals give birth a bit later in the spring).

Sea ice at 20 June_2016 vs 2012 and 2010_NSIDC interactive

And did polar bears die in droves due to conditions in 2010 or 2012, in any subpopulation around the Arctic affected by low sea ice levels? No, they did not. In fact, the subpopulation that had the most recent survey done (Svalbard portion of the Barents Sea – 2015) was not only found to be thriving but numbers had increased markedly (42%) over 2004 levels. Now that’s resilience!

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