Tag Archives: Barents Sea

Svalbard polar bear data for spring 2022, low June ice unlikely to affect health or survival

Sea ice around Svalbard, Norway has receded dramatically over the last few weeks and is now at levels similar to 2018 and 2006. But the data are in for the 2022 spring season and they show the bears are still thriving.

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Barents Sea good news: researcher reveals polar bears, even females, still in excellent condition

Barents Sea polar bears had another good year in 2022 despite having lost the most sea ice of any subpopulation but the media and activists can’t help themselves insisting a dismal future is ahead.

Oddly, Norwegian polar bear researcher Jon Aars recently said the quiet part out loud: that he expects Barents Sea polar bear numbers to keep rising, which is rather at odds with the standard narrative:

“What we think is that in the future, if you get less and less sea ice and more and more bears, at some stage they will start struggling and you get fewer bears,” Dr. Jon Aars, a research biologist at Norwegian Polar Institute, told CTV News. [CTV News, 8 May 2022]

This despite the fact that recent research results showed the bears have been doing fine despite declining ice and a study on females up to 2017 compared to 1997-2005 showed the bears were in significantly better condition in recent years:

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. Despite the declining sea ice in the Barents Sea, polar bears are likely not lacking food as long as sea ice is present during their peak feeding period. Polar bears feed extensively from April to June when ringed seals have pups and are particularly vulnerable to predation, whereas the predation rate during the rest of the year is likely low.” [Lippold et al. 2019:988]

This is has been upheld this year as well, with Aars saying in the video below (6 May 2022) that bears were found to be in excellent condition this spring. In contrast, the media framed this good news within the false ‘polar bear numbers are declining’ narrative, urged on, no doubt, by doom-monger Steve Amstrup.

Amstrup is the paid spokesman for activist organization Polar Bears International, who is identified in this ‘news’ report only as a ‘scientist’, as if he were unbiased, banging on about bears in Western Hudson Bay, where sea ice decline has been a fraction of what the Barents Sea has experienced.

Sea ice charts for the Barents Sea

Compared to previous years, ice extent around Svalbard is above average now (in May) but in contrast to last year, was well below average for much of March, leading to a huge hue-and-cry of impending doom:

Amstrup’s prophet-of-doom side-kick, Dr. Andrew Derocher (University of Alberta), who worked in the Svalbard area in the 1990s, was wringing his hands in public over sea ice loss in March:

and…

It turned out, this wasn’t an “early melt” but pack ice moving in response to wind, as it often does. A bucket-load of angst, all for nothing. Oddly enough, the polar bears figured out a way to not just survive, but thrive! Who would have thought?

References

Lippold, A., Bourgeon, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder, A., Lyche, J.L., Bytingsvik, J., Jenssen, B.M., Derocher, A.E., Welker, J.M. and Routti, H. 2019. Temporal trends of persistent organic pollutants in Barents Sea polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to changes in feeding habits and body condition. Environmental Science and Technology 53(2):984-995.

Whaling crews and their encounters with polar bears and sea ice in 17th century Svalbard

A new paper published today by Dagomar Degroot is a long but interesting historical account about sea ice and whaling in the 1600s around Svalbard that includes some details on interactions of whalers with polar bears (Figure 4 from the paper copied below). These were the early days of whaling in the Arctic: the wholesale slaughter of whales and polar bears didn’t happen until the 1800s.

The paper is open access, so free to download but I’ve copied the abstract and a short excerpt here.

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Remembering the terrorizing Belushya Guba polar bears: lots of Barents Sea ice cover this year

Three years ago, the Russian village of Belushya Guba on southwest coast of Novaya Zemlya on the Barents Sea got international attention for the dozens of polar bears that had invaded the local dump and some aggressive bears were terrorizing local residents. The phenomenon was of course blamed on climate change by virtually all media outlets largely because there was no sea ice on that coast at the time (as had been true many years before without bear trouble).

This year is a different story completely. It’s only early January and already there is abundant ice along the west coast of Novaya Zemlya; ice in the Barents Sea in general is well up over recent averages and the pack is already converging on Bear Island (Bjørnøya) to the south of the Svalbard archipelago. Ice this far south often brings polar bear visitors to the weather station there but that doesn’t usually happen until March or April.

You’ll find references in previous posts linked here.

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Mid-December polar bear habitat update

Compared to last year, polar bear habitat at 15 December 2021 is way up in the Barents and Bering Seas but way down in Hudson Bay but nothing any polar bear has to worry about.

Here’s what the ice charts look like.

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Svalbard polar bear paper falsely assumes that loss of genetic diversity has negative consequences

A new paper published today deals with an animal conservation issue I’ve addressed twice before: the theoretical assumption that loss of genetic diversity must be detrimental to species survival despite there being little evidence that this has been the case in real life. For this new study, the authors carried out some complicated measuring of genetic diversity loss and inbreeding amongst and between Svalbard region polar bear populations between 1995 and 2016 (see map below), and then modelled what this could lead to in 100 generations (1210 years), with the over-anxious hand-wringing we’ve all come to expect from such prophesies. As far as I can see, it’s all meaningless number-crunching without relevance to the real world of polar bears.

To support their claim of harm from loss of genetic diversity, the authors of this paper (Maduna et al. 2021) cite four theoretical papers that assume as fact that loss of genetic diversity is harmful but not the evidence to back up the claim. They apparently never bothered to look at species that have actually suffered dramatic loss of genetic diversity. Northern elephant seals, for example, reduced to 20-30 animals more than 100 years ago, have rebounded to a population of about 170,000 with extremely low genetic diversity but no apparent health or survival repercussions. Similar genetic bottlenecks and recoveries have been documented in Guadalupe fur seals, San Nicolas Island foxes, mouflon sheep, and North Atlantic right whales (among others), which I discussed in detail here (with references). I discussed the issue again in regards to a similar polar bear ‘genetic diversity’ paper in 2016.

Conspicuous by its absence in this new publication is a citation of the recent paper that revealed the body condition of female Svalbard polar bears had increased significantly between 2004 and 2017 despite a pronounced decline in summer and winter sea ice extent (Lippold et al. 2019: 988). Nor did the paper cite data collected by the Norwegian Polar Institute that show the body condition of adult males in Svalbard has not changed since 1993 or that population numbers have not declined. Instead, the authors mention only that reduced numbers of pregnant females have reached traditional denning areas due to lack of ice and that bears have spent less time feeding at glacier fronts than they used to do (Maduna et al. 2021: 2), as if the only polar bear data available in relation to sea ice decline was negative.

Figure 1 from Maduna et al. 2021

Population bottlenecks during the Last Glacial Maximum when suitable habitat was scarce and another in the late 1800s/early 1900s due to wanton overhunting left polar bears with remarkably low genetic diversity but no apparent ill-effects to their overall heath. Oddly, this recent work by Maduna and colleagues assumes without evidence that a bit less genetic diversity could be devastating to Svalbard bears more than 1000 years from now. While the media expectedly promote this as scary new evidence of what climate change has wrought (here and here), I am not impressed.

This is conservation biology done WWF-style: loss of genetic diversity sounds bad to people who don’t know better, but real-world evidence shows it isn’t.

References

Lippold, A., Bourgeon, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder, A., Lyche, J.L., Bytingsvik, J., Jenssen, B.M., Derocher, A.E., Welker, J.M. and Routti, H. 2019. Temporal trends of persistent organic pollutants in Barents Sea polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in relation to changes in feeding habits and body condition. Environmental Science and Technology 53(2):984-995. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.8b05416

Maduna, S. N., Aars, J., Fløystad, I., Klütsch, C. F. C., Zeyl Fiskebeck, E. M. L., Wiig, Ø. et al. 2021. Sea ice reduction drives genetic differentiation among Barents Sea polar bears. Proceedings of the Royals Society B  288 (1958): 20211741. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.1741 OPEN ACCESS

Barents Sea polar bears thriving despite huge summer ice loss: spring research results are in

After being locked out last year, fieldwork monitoring polar bears in the Svalbard region of the Barents Sea resumed this spring. The results show that despite having to deal with the most extreme loss of summer sea ice in the entire Arctic, polar bears in this region continue to thrive. These facts show no hint of that impending catastrophic decline in population size we keep hearing is just around the corner. No tipping point here.

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More polar bear catastrophe hype: bears use four times more energy than expected

Last week (24 February 2021), The Guardian was promoting a study that claims polar bears now use four times more energy than expected to survive because of ‘major ice loss’ in the Arctic, as a way of suggesting that the animals are already on their way to extinction.

But like many papers of this type, this study by Anthony Pagano and Terri Williams (Pagano and Williams 2021) is yet another model describing what biologists think may be happening based on experimental data collected from individual bears, not a conclusion based on evidence collected from subpopulations with the worst amounts of ice loss.

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Polar bear sea ice habitat highs and lows in early February

Sea ice across the Arctic in the first week of February is a mix of highs and lows. Bering Sea is back up to almost normal coverage, as is the Barents Sea. However, ice coverage on the East Coast of Canada is the lowest its been in four decades. This is not yet a worry for polar bears because harp seals don’t pup until mid-March in this region so there is at least four weeks of potential ice growth that can happen before the seals are forced to pup on much reduced ice – where polar bears are sure to find them.


Here is a close-up look at sea ice conditions by region at the edges of the Arctic. Continue reading

Some surprises in polar bear sea ice habitat at mid-October 2020

Arctic sea ice has been growing steadily since the minimum extent was reached a month ago, with shorefast ice now developing along the Russian and Alaskan coastlines as ice cover expands in the Central Canadian Arctic. So while it’s true that the main pack of Arctic ice is far from the Russian shoreline, rapidly developing shorefast ice will allow bears to begin hunting seals long before ice in the central Arctic Basin reaches the Siberian shore, as they do in Western and Southern Hudson Bay every fall.

Cropped sea ice extent at 15 October 2020 (Day 289), NSIDC Masie.

And speaking of Western Hudson Bay, it’s a very slow season around Churchill for problem polar bears (photo below) – the quietest mid-October for the Polar Bear Alert Program in the last five years and perhaps the quietest in decades (which I could say for sure if I had the records but I do not).

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