Tag Archives: Bering Sea

Low Bering Sea ice mostly due to south winds, no data on an impact for polar bears

Sea ice in the Bering Sea this winter was said to be the lowest since the 1850s, largely driven by persistent winds from the south rather than the usual north winds although warm Pacific water was a factor early in the season (AIRC 2018). But what, if any, impact is this surprisingly low winter and spring ice cover likely to have on Chukchi Sea polar bear health and survival?

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

In fact, research on Chukchi Sea polar bears has included so few examples of individuals utilizing the Bering Sea in winter (Jan-March) and early spring (April-May) that any conclusions regarding an impact from this year’s sea ice conditions are likely to be invalid. In short, we don’t know what will happen since it has not happened before within living memory; the opinions of polar bear specialists must be taken with a grain of salt because so many of their previous assumptions have turned out to be wrong (Crockford 2017a,b, 2018), see here, here, and here. Seals, walrus and polar bears are much more flexible and resilent to changes in habitat conditions than most modern biologists give them credit for and consequently, it will be fascinating to see how the ice will change over the coming months and how the animals will respond.

Sea ice extent 2018 March average NSIDC

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Histrionics over Arctic temperatures & sea ice extent: implications for polar bears

Panic over Arctic temperatures got smeared across news networks last week, so I think a bit of perspective is in order, including an assessment of what this means for polar bears and their prey (because some of the hysteria is being amplified from that corner).

The region causing all the kerfuffle is at the northernmost tip of Greenland (see map below), where there is a weather station at Cape Morris Jesup. Next-nearest stations are at Alert, Canada (to the west) and Longyearbyen, Svalbard (Norway, to the east).

Cape Morris Jesup location Greenland_Google map

Arctic temps spike over 30 degrees in the midst of winter (The Weathern Network, Friday, February 23, 2018) included the tweet below, showing a fracture of sea ice north of Greenland so transient that it does not show up on daily sea ice maps:

“Along with those spikes in temperature, Lars Kaleschke’s tweet, above, also shows the large rift in the sea ice that opened up just north of Cape Morris Jesup, at the same time. Kaleschke is a professor of sea ice remote sensing at the Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability, at the University of Hamburg, in Germany.

Summary: Temperature and sea ice “abberations” in northern Greenland are transient phenomena that have clearly happened before (e.g. 2011) without major consequences except perhaps through impacts on eastern Arctic and subArctic weather conditions (including the UK).

Lack of sea ice north of Svalbard in the Barents Sea occuried last year and in 2012 in Februrary. But by mid-to-late March, when seal are beginning to give birth on the ice and polar bears are busy hunting them, ice had again covered the region. This year is likely to be the same. However, we won’t know until the end of March or ealry April if a recovery will or won’t happen, so any alarm-ringing about impacts on Arctic fauna surival have no foundation in fact until then.

East Greenland Scorsby Sound March 2011 on Kap Tobin_Rune Dietz_press photo

Scorsby Sound, East Greenland bear in March 2011. Rune Dietz, press photo.

In the Bering Sea, ice extent is well below average for this time of year but studies show the one consistent feature of Bering Sea ice is its variability. Low ice levels have distressing impacts for St. Lawrence island seal and whale hunters. However, there is certainly enough ice in the Bering Sea/Chukchi Sea region for polar bears and Arctic seals to do what they do this time of year (which is try to survive until early April, at which time seals start giving birth to their pups and polar bears start to eat them, with gusto). And the ice season isn’t over: maximum extent of ice in the Bering sea doesn’t usually come until late April or May, and the dramatic decline of mid-February already shows signs of reversing.

Details below this ice map for 24 February 2018, courtesy NSIDC Masie:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 Feb 24

PS. I’m off within hours to Toronto for the launch of my State of the Polar Bear Report in honour of International Polar Bear Day, 27 February. Watch for reports in the news and for my op-ed 27 February at the Financial Post.

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USGS report on history of walrus haulouts leaves out correlation with population size

Walrus researchers from the US Geological Survey have a new report on the history of walrus haulouts in the Chukchi and Bering Seas – yet their media efforts (via press release and interviews) fail to mention the relationship between fluctuating size of walrus haulouts and fluctuating walrus population size that is evident in that history. In fact, overall population size is not mentioned at all.

Walrus 2012 July USGS

Two articles came out over the weekend that announced the results of this new joint US-Russian initiative [PBS, Walrus beaching in Alaska might not be as harmful as it looks. Here’s why – 31 July 2016 and ADN, Alaska and Russia join forces to create 160-year database of walrus haulouts – 31 July 2016]

But neither articles nor the new USGS paper they are touting (Fischback et al. 2016) mention the huge summer/fall haulouts of females, calves, and juveniles that were documented in the 1970s that coincided with the huge population size at that time, which crashed in the 1980s.

Only now has the population grown (to at least 200,000) to the point that huge haulouts are again being reported – conservation has done it’s job. But when walrus numbers get too high the animals out-strip their food source and numbers plummet, as they did in the 1980s (Fay et al. 1989; Garlich-Miller et al. 2011). See my fully referenced summary paper, Crockford 2014 (On The Beach: Walrus Haulouts are Nothing New).

Here’s the concern: When (not if) a population crash happens again, will it be blamed on global warming rather than natural causes? According to the PBS article:

“The database is supposed to help federal officials with conservation, especially as more ships start sailing through the newly open waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determining whether walrus should be listed as a threatened species.[my bold]

My GWPF video on the issue (The Walrus Fuss) below:

See excerpts from the USGS database below, with a map:

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Pacific walrus sob stories begin again

Now we have poor hunting conditions in the Bering Strait touted as evidence that “walrus migration patterns have changed” with the implication that this is because “…the past eight years have had the eight lowest amounts of summer sea ice on record” due to man-made global warming.

Walrus 2012 July USGS

A subsistence lifestyle is hard, particularly so if it depends on a highly mobile, migratory herd animal. Think Barren-ground Inuit caribou hunters, who often starved because herd sizes declined for a few years or moved unpredictably.

Many factors – seasonal weather, last year’s winter conditions, size of the herd, food supply – all affect where and when a migratory herd will move and the likelihood it will be positioned for optimal harvesting by hunters. Add another highly variable factor into that – Bering Sea ice – and you have a highly unpredictable food supply, especially if you sit in one spot (like on St. Lawrence Island) and expect that migratory herd animal to come within reach.

Hunting walrus from St. Lawrence Island depends on just the right combination of ice and winds. Too much ice is not good, too much open water is not good, and too much wind is not good.

Alaska Dispatch, courtesy the Associated Press, reports St. Lawrence natives are again short of walrus meat because of “warm temperatures”: “Warming temps push walrus north, leaving Alaska villages without traditional food source” (Rachel D’Oro, The Associated Press, August 6, 2015). And the caption of the above USGS (A. Sonsthagen) photo predictably implies all current hunting troubles can be blamed on climate channge:

“The walruses in this July 2012 file photo are hauled out in the Eastern Chukchi Sea. Walrus migration patterns have changed as sea ice and other environmental factors have shifted — and that’s spelled trouble for Alaska Native communities who hunt them for subsistence.”

The people of St. Lawrence Island and the Bering Strait that depend on walrus for subsistence have my sympathy, they indeed have a hard life – but this is not a tale of woe about the status of Pacific walrus and changing summer sea ice.

Bering Strait natives hunt walrus in spring, from mid-April to early June (Huntington et al. 2013). All indications are that walrus are moving differently than they used to in summer because the population is now very large.  As far as I know, there is no new population information on walrus that wasn’t available last year, when I covered this topic extensively (Crockford 2014; video below).

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Melt season update – Bering Sea ice abundant & Davis Strait ice 2nd highest since 1971

Polar bear habitat in the eastern Bering Sea has expanded since the official spring “maximum extent” was called for late February, and Davis Strait sea ice is tied for 2nd highest since 1971 for this week. Both regions have healthy polar bear populations and spring conditions suggest this will continue into this year.

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

Although the melt season is underway, as of yesterday (22 April, Julian day 112) overall Arctic sea ice extent (Fig. 1) was higher than it was on the same date in 2014, 2007, and 2004 (see also Fig. 2). Despite the record low extent in February (Fig. 3), that pessimists at Polar Bears International suggested was relevant to polar bear heath and survival, I showed that was misleading.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at 22 April (Julian day 112) for 2015, at 13.976 mkm2, was well within 2 standard deviations and higher than 2007 (shown) as well as 2004 and 2014 (not shown – see it for yourself here).

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at 22 April (Julian day 112) for 2015, at 13.976 mkm2, was well within 2 standard deviations and higher than 2007 (shown), as well as higher than 2004 and 2014 (not shown – see it for yourself here). Click to enlarge.

Sea ice maps and charts tell the story of current polar bear habitat throughout the Arctic.
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‘Threatened’ status for Arctic ringed seals under ESA makes no sense

Recent research (Crawford and Quakenbush 203; Rode et al. 2014) has shown that sea ice declines in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas have made life better for ringed seals, not worse (as predicted) – ringed seals are in better condition and reproducing better than they were in the 1970s. Why? Ringed seals do most of their feeding in the open-water period (Young and Ferguson 2013), so a longer open-water season means fatter, healthier seals and more fat pups for polar bears to hunt the following spring.


However, Arctic ringed seals (as well as bearded seals) were designated as ‘threatened’ by the USA in 2012 under the Endangered Species Act, based on predicted ice and snow declines due to prophesied global warming. These listings are all about future threats, with no pretense of on-going harm.

Virtually no other Arctic nation has taken this step for Arctic seals — see previous discussion here. There are lots of ringed seals — an estimated 3-4 million world-wide and about 1.7 million within the critical habitat proposed by NOAA (see below).

As weak as the case for listing polar bears as ‘threatened’ has proven to be, the case for listing ringed and bearded seals is even more feeble (a judge has already sent the bearded seal listing back to the drawing board).
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Swimming bear video used to promote climate change threat to polar bears

A video being hyped around the internet – “Witness a polar bear’s heartbreaking swim for ice in the Arctic” said one headline – is simply shameless propaganda, facilitated by the US Geological Survey and its polar bear biologists. USGS scientists involved in this work should be ashamed of themselves.

The caption for the Youtube video (published Jun 21, 2014) says this:

Take a swim with a polar bear family as they traverse the Arctic Ocean in search of sea ice.

This is a load of nonsense and a total misrepresentation of the facts.

In addition, the text added to the video is pure propaganda: it is being used to promote the US government position that sea ice loss due to climate change is a massive threat to polar bears. Unfortunately, recent studies contradict the contention that polar bears have already been harmed by declines in summer sea ice.

Here are some background to the video you should be aware of:

1) The bears were swimming away from the USGS researchers and film crew who had shot them full of sedatives and attached a camera to one of their necks — they were not swimming toward sea ice 100 miles away.

2) The video was shot in the Bering Sea, in April 2014, when sea ice was about its maximum extent of the year — there was lots of ice around when this video was filmed.

3) The company doing the filming is using this video as a fundraiser.

Details below, including a sea ice map for April 2014.

UPDATE June 27, 2014 – see follow-up post here.

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