Tag Archives: Beaufort Sea

Polar bear specialists double-down on message of future starving bears

The really significant content of a new paper being heavily-hyped by the media1 is what wasn’t said rather than what the authors discovered about metabolic rates and weight maintenance of a small sample of nine Southern Beaufort Sea bears in 2014 to 2016 (Pagano et al. 2018; Whiteman 2018).

Pagano et al. 2018 photo released to press 2

This paper does not document starving or dying bears but merely found some (5/9) that lost weight when they should have been gaining, given that early April is the start of the ringed seal pupping season (Smith 1987) and the intensive spring feeding period for polar bears (Stirling et al. 1981).

The question is, why were Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears off Prudhoe Bay (see map of the study area below), still hunting and capturing only adult and subadult ringed seals from sea ice leads when newborn ringed seal pups and their mothers should have been plentiful and relatively easily available in their birth lairs on the sea ice (see below)?

Ringed seal lair_snow and ice thickness_PolarBearScience_sm

“Using video collar data, we documented bears’ hunting behavior and foraging success. Bears used sit-and-wait tactics to hunt seals 90% of the time, and stalking comprised the remaining 10% of hunts (movies S1 to S4) (19). Bears that successfully killed and ate adult or subadult ringed seals either gained or maintained body mass, whereas bears that only scavenged or showed no evidence of eating lost mass.”

There was no discussion in the paper of ringed seal birth lairs, or sea ice conditions at the time of the study, but several mentions about what might happen in the future to sea ice and potential consequences for polar bears. The press release did the same.

However, as you’ll see by the sea ice thickness maps below, there may be good reason for the lack of ringed seal lairs, and a general lack of seals except at the nearshore lead that forms because of tidal action: the ice just a bit further offshore ice looks too thick for a good crop of ringed seals in all three years of the study. This is reminiscent of conditions that occurred with devastating results in the mid-1970s and mid-2000s (Burns et al. 1975; Cherry et al. 2009; Harwood et al. 2012, 2015; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002, Stirling et al. 1987). Those events affected primarily bears in the eastern half of the Southern Beaufort and were almost certainly responsible for the recorded decline in SB bear numbers in the 2001-2010 survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015; Crockford 2017; Crockford and Geist 2018).

It seems very odd to me that Pagano and colleagues suggested no reasons for the unexpectedly poor showing of polar bear hunting success during their study except a bit of hand-waving about higher-than-we-thought metabolic rates in the bears. For years, I’ve worried that the inevitable next episodes of thick Southern Beaufort spring ice would cause problems for polar bears and seals but we wouldn’t know it because whatever effects were documented would be blamed on reduced summer ice: I suspect that time may have come.

Pagano et al. 2018 polar bear fat and energy fig 1

Figure 1 from Pagano et al. 2018 cropped to show only the study area off Alaska.

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Much more sea ice in NW Hudson Bay this year than 2016 or 2015 at 27 May

In recent years, sea ice loss over Hudson Bay has begun with open water in the NW corner (which is just as likely due to prevailing offshore winds as ice melt) rather than along the east coast but this year that patch of ice is smaller than its been for the last two years. In addition, despite two patches of open water at either end of the Beaufort Sea, most of the coast of Alaska is still covered in thick ice — much more than existed last year, yet masses of polar bears did not die as far as I know (actually, WHB bears came ashore in excellent condition last year).

Sea ice Canada 2017 May 27

Compare to previous years:

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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.

masie-sea-ice-2016-oct-20-cropped-and-marked_polarbearscience

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.

sea-ice-extent-canada-2016-oct-21_cis

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:

79-th-parallel-north_wikipedia

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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Tracking Western Alaskan polar bears in the Beaufort in Sept – all 3 chose Canada

All three polar bear females tagged in the Southern Beaufort Sea far west of Kaktovik (near Barrow) spent all or most of September onshore in the Northern Beaufort area of Canada.

beaufort-tracking-usgs-bear-movements-september-2016-lg-closeup

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Polar bear onshore in Tuktoyaktuk got so close to kids they heard it breathing

A report from the CBC this morning (with video) of a large polar bear wandering about the village of Tuktoyaktuk on the (Canadian) shore of the Eastern Beaufort Sea on Thursday (29 September) that got very close to a group of children playing outside. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

tuk-polar-bear-sighting-sept-29_cbc-oct-1-2016-headline

That this was a rare event is evident in the awe and excitement in the voices of the residents as someone recorded the movements of the bear through town (picture quality is not the best, but clear enough).

As I’ve said before, with more bears we can expect more interactions with people and more sightings like this that haven’t happened in decades. Map and quotes below.
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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).

sea-ice-extent-2016-sept-10_nsidc

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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Beaufort polar bear with tight collar found and rescued says U of Alberta

It appears that the male polar bear with a too-tight satellite radio collar that was photographed late last year near Kaktovik on the North Slope of Alaska has been captured and his faulty collar removed, says a statement posted on the University of Alberta website 25 August 2016. The animal was reported to be healthy and behaving normally.

polar-bear-radio-collar_CBC Oct 28 2015

As far as I can tell, no press release was issued and no media interviews have been conducted despite the strong interest in the fate of this bear last fall (previous reports here, here, and here) – I found the notice by accident while looking for something else.

Andrew Derocher and his research team from U of A have admitted they collared this bear and the Polar Bear Facts webpage where this recent statement appears was developed to deal with the many inquiries about the status of this bear (dubbed “Andy” by some).

Note the statement, copied below, does not confirm that this is indeed the same bear as was photographed last year – they just assume it is. No photo is provided of the rescued bear, although clearly some were taken. However, if it is not the same bear, then another subadult male spent the winter of 2015-2016 on the ice of the Beaufort Sea with a tight and non-functioning collar that was not about to fall off by itself.
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