Tag Archives: Barents Sea

Still pack ice around Bear Island in the Barents Sea on 15 May: last time was 2003

It’s very open drift ice (1-4/10th concentration) but still: Bear Island (Bjørnøya) in the southern Barents Sea was still surrounded by pack ice at 15 May 2020. As far as I can tell from the Norwegian Ice Service archived ice charts, this hasn’t happened since 2003.

Svalbard ice extent 2020 May 15_NIS

And last week, the island was surrounded by heavy drift ice, which hadn’t happened on 8 May since 1977.

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New Paper: Body condition of Barents Sea polar bears increased since 2004 despite sea ice loss

A recent paper that attempted to correlate pollution levels and body condition in Barents Sea polar bears reports it found body condition of female bears had increased between 2004 and 2017 despite a pronounced decline in summer and winter sea ice extent.

Svalbard polar bear Jon Aars_Norsk Polarinstitutt

“Unexpectedly, body condition of female polar bears from the Barents Sea has increased after 2005, although sea ice has retreated by ∼50% since the late 1990s in the area, and the length of the ice-free season has increased by over 20 weeks between 1979 and 2013. These changes are also accompanied by winter sea ice retreat that is especially pronounced in the Barents Sea compared to other Arctic areas” [Lippold et al. 2019:988]

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Svalbard at end of April again has 6th-7th highest sea ice extent & a lot of very thick ice

For the second time this month, sea ice around Svalbard Norway was the 6th or 7th highest since records began in the late 1960s. Pack ice at the end of April still surrounds Bear Island (Bjørnøya) at the southern end of the archipelago, which is a rare occurrence at this date. These conditions document a recurrent pattern of high ice extent and especially extreme ice thickness in the Barents Sea since last summer.

Bear island 8 March 2019_first bear seen since 2011_Bjørnøya Meteorological Station photo SVALBARDPOSTEN

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Highest Svalbard sea ice since 1988 with Bear Island in the south surrounded

From 3-7 April this year, sea ice around Svalbard Norway has been the highest since 1988, but only 6th or 7th highest since records began in the 1970s. Pack ice is year surrounds Bear Island (Bjørnøya) at the southern end of the archipelago for the first time since 2009 at this date, and continues the pattern of high extent and thickness of ice in the Barents Sea since last summer.

Bear island 8 March 2019_first bear seen since 2011_Bjørnøya Meteorological Station photo SVALBARDPOSTEN

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Svalbard Norway now has more polar bear habitat than it did two decades ago

Sea ice around Svalbard, Norway at the end of February 2020 is way above average, as the graph below shows – with more polar bear habitat now than there has been in two decades.

Svalbard ice extent 2020 Feb 28 graph_NIS

Some comparison charts below show that the graph above includes some very high ice years in the 1980s (reaching that dotted line above the mean) for which only global charts are available.

However, contrary to suggestions that more Svalbard ice is better for polar bears, there is no evidence that low extent of sea ice habitat in winter or summer over the last two decades harmed polar bear health, reproductive performance, or abundance. In fact, polar bear numbers in 2015 were 42% higher than they were in 2004 (although not a significant increase, statistically speaking) and most bears were found to be in excellent condition.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

This suggests a return to more extensive ice to the Svalbard region in winter will have little impact on the health of the entire Barents Sea subpopulation, although it might change where pregnant females are able to make their maternity dens if ice forms early enough in the fall. In other words, the population should continue to grow as it has been doing since the bears were protected by international treaty in 1973.

UPDATE 3 March 2020: According to 28 February tweet by the Norwegian Ice Service, which I just saw today, “the last time there was this much sea ice around Svalbard on this day of the year [28 February] was 2004“. Somehow, I missed 2004 when I was looking through the archive, so I have modified the text below accordingly; see the 2004 chart below and here.

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Polar bear habitat at mid-winter as extensive as 2013 & better than 2006

Arctic sea ice at the middle of winter (January-March) is a measure of what’s to come because winter ice is the set-up for early spring, the time when polar bears do most of their feeding on young seals.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Alaska Katovik Regehr photo_April 29, 2005_sm labeled

[Mid-winter photos of polar bears are hard to come by, partly because the Arctic is still dark for most hours of the day, it’s still bitterly cold, and scientists don’t venture out to do work on polar bears until the end of March at the earliest]

At 12 February this year, the ice was similar in overall extent to 2013 but higher than 2006.

Sea ice extent 2020 and 2013 and 2006 at 13 Feb 2020_closeup NSIDC interactive
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First-ever polar bear population survey for entire Russian coast planned for 2021-2023

Word that Russia is planning to generate a count of polar bears along its entire Arctic coast within the next few years is good news indeed, as it will resolve a long-standing gap in population estimates that have not been dealt with at all well by the polar bear community. Whether North American and European academics will accept the results of the aerial surveys is another matter entirely, especially if the numbers are higher than they like, which is what happened with the first Russian Kara Sea count in 2013.

Mother with cubs Russia_shutterstock_71694292_web size

Up first will be the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas in 2021, the Laptev and Kara Seas, in 2022, and the eastern Barents Sea around Franz Josef Land in 2023.

Polar bear regions_larger

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