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).
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.
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.
Posted in Advocacy, Conservation Status, Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Aars, Barents Sea, Derocher, extinction, extirpation, polar bear, Russia, sea ice, Svalbard
What a difference two weeks make! When the seasonal minimum Arctic sea ice extent occurs in September, polar bear doom-mongers always forget to tell you that within two months, sea ice will return to virtually all regions where polar bears have spent the summer on land, including Hudson Bay. Just as it did in 2007, when polar bears did not die by the thousands due to lack of fall sea ice, polar bear habitat is reforming.
This year, the seasonal minimum came on 23 September. Despite the fact that the US National Snow and Ice Data Center proclaimed that “unusual warmth” in the Arctic continued during October, over the last two weeks sea ice expanded from 6 mkm2 to 9 mkm2. At the current rate of ice growth documented by sea ice charts (see below), Arctic sea ice will be wide-spread by 23 November.
A few polar bears have become stranded on small islands north of Svalbard since the local sea ice retreated — of which the bear that mauled a cruise ship guard last month was but one — and if return of the ice is as late as last year, those handful of bears are likely doomed to die of starvation. This is not due to climate change but rather bad judgment on the part of these few bears. They were not forced ashore: if they’d stayed on the ice like the rest of the population, they’d have likely been just fine.
Similar to the bear in northwestern Hudson Bay that fatally mauled a young father in early July, these bears were likely lured ashore by the prospect of masses of bird eggs present on island rookeries. But they overstayed their window of opportunity and the ice retreated without them.
Fledgling birds and bird eggs are not replacements for seals in a bear’s diet but when the season of easy seal kills winds down, as it does in late spring, easy-picking sea bird eggs may be enticing enough to lure a few bears ashore when they’d be better off on the ice.
That is not the fault of climate change.
Unlike bears in Hudson Bay and many other regions — including the Lancaster Sound area of Canada where the National Geographic “starving” bear was filmed last summer — these bears were not forced ashore by retreating ice: they chose to do so.
Posted in Life History, Polar bear attacks, Sea ice habitat
Tagged attack, Barents Sea, climate change, polar bear, Refuge, sea ice, stranded, summer, Svalbard
Less than a month after a fatal polar bear attack near Arviat, Western Hudson Bay, European media reported this morning that one of two German polar bear guards escorting a group of tourists on a shore visit in northern Svalbard was mauled on 28 July by a polar bear before the second guard could kill it.
The man was air-lifted to hospital in Longyearbyen with non-life-threatening head injuries. Whether the bear was fat or thin was not mentioned but a necropsy will be performed.
More details are likely to be available within the next few days. The guards and tourists were from the German cruise ship MS Bremen, which apparently is operating a live web cam. The group landed on the Sjuøyane Islands, the northernmost group of islands in the Svalbard archipelago (see the top of the black box on the map below).
UPDATE 28 July 2018 11:00 pm PT: The photo of the dead bear (above, provided by the Governor of Svalbard), shows the animal was in poor condition. See my comments below regarding sea ice coverage for the area: the bear had likely been on the islands since early May and if he was not in good condition when he left the ice, he would have been desperate by now. However, we still do not know if he was sick or injured, young or old. That information will come with time.
UPDATE 29 July 2018: The cruise ship line has released a statement on Facebook that includes further details about the attack, see below.
Last week, the Norwegian Polar Institute updated their online data collected for the Svalbard area to include 2017 and 2018 — fall sea ice data and spring polar bear data. Older data for comparison go back to 1993 for polar bears and 1979 for sea ice, showing little to no impact of the reduced ice present since 2016 in late spring through fall.
Here’s what the introduction says, in part [my bold]:
“…The polar bear habitat is changing rapidly, and the Polar Basin could be ice-free in summer within a few years. Gaining access to preferred denning areas and their favourite prey, ringed seals, depends on good sea ice conditions at the right time and place. The population probably increased considerably during the years after hunting was banned in 1973, and new knowledge indicates that the population hasn’t been reduced the last 10-15 years, in spite of a large reduction in available sea ice in the same period.”
See Aars et al. 2017 for details on the 2015 Svalbard polar bear population count, keeping in mind that the subpopulation region is called “Barents Sea” for a reason: only a few hundred individuals currently stick close to Svalbard year round while most Barents Sea bears inhabit the pack ice around Franz Josef Land to the east (Aars et al. 2009; Crockford 2017, 2018).
Posted in Advocacy, Conservation Status, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Barents Sea, body condition, decline, denning, Derocher, Franz Josef Land, litter size, mothers with cubs, polar bear, population, sea ice, Svalbard
Just out (6 June 2018) — new population assessment and status maps of the 19 polar bear subpopulations according to Environment Canada. Contrary to the map presented at the Range State meeting in February 2018 (pdf here), these maps show Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay (along with the Southern Beaufort) as “likely declined.” A new category has been added for the Barents Sea: it’s considered “data deficient/uncertain,” but a population estimate of 2,001-3,000 has been provided.
No press release or other notice regarding the availability of these new maps was issued, as far as I know: I came across them by accident while looking for something else.
Global map above, more below, including a comparative map that shows 2010, 2014, and 2018 together. I will update the two recent posts of mine (here and here) that used the February Range State map with the information that more recently revised maps are now available.