Tag Archives: Bering Sea

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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Polar bear habitat update – ice coverage at the beginning of this year’s critical feeding period

Polar bears are all out on the sea ice at this time of year, feeding on new-born seal pups. Here’s a look at what the ice conditions are like at this critical time.

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

end April extent NSIDC May 4

The ice extent is still well within two standard deviations from the 1981-2010 average, which indicates no deviation from natural variation, as the graph (below) for May 1, 2014 from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) shows.

Sea ice extent 2014 May 1_NSIDC_graph

Between the official spring maximum (according to the NSIDC ) on March 21, with a total extent of 14.8 million km2, the ice slowly retreated in some regions and increased in others, while most regions remained pretty much the same. This is an important reminder that the Arctic as a whole is not a homogeneous region but one with marked regional variation.

As has been noted elsewhere (Sunshine Hours), ice in the Greenland Sea (habitat of ‘East Greenland’ bears) and the Barents Sea both increased in extent over this period. Bering Sea ice (habitat of southern ‘Chukchi Sea’ bears) declined markedly but Baffin Bay/Gulf of St. Lawrence ice (habitat of ‘Davis Strait’ bears) declined much less, as NOAA’s MASIE maps copied below show very well.

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Ancient polar bear skulls looted from Bering Sea graves to be returned

A different kind of polar bear news story caught my eye this morning: “Funerary polar bear skulls may be returned to St. Lawrence Island.”

St. Lawrence Island, Alaska lies just south of the Bering Strait (see map below). It has strong historical ties to Russia but lies within US territory; it also lies within the “Chukchi Sea” polar bear subpopulation region.

St Lawrence island wikipedia marked

The story I found talks of “hundreds of polar bear bones, mostly skulls” that had been excavated from ancient human graves on St. Lawrence Island between 1930 and 1960. Hundreds!

These polar bear skulls and other bones had been stored separately from the carved ivory artifacts and other goodies plundered removed from graves (a formerly common practice). The museum in New York had only recently found them in storage and was preparing to return them, as the law now stipulates.

St. Lawrence Island is an important region for understanding the development of Inuit culture and the history of the Arctic. I could tell you a story about that (based on my peer-reviewed published papers) but I’ll save it for another long winter’s night.

However, my knowledge of the region meant I found the short online summary frustratingly devoid of detail, so I went a’Googling and found that a total of 376 polar bear skulls were involved. Worth the effort, I think – have a look.

[Update evening of December 12, 2013 – I’ve been mulling over in my mind all day whether using the word “looting” in my title (and in the text above, “plundered”) was warranted and decided in the end that it was perhaps not quite fair. To be sure, looting of graves and midden sites has occurred on a massive scale on St. Lawrence Island but Dr. Geist was doing archaeology as it was legally practiced in those days, and he did, on one occasion at least (see below), ask permission of relatives to remove items. Still, the people of St. Lawrence Island may well perceive all of the disturbance of their ancestors graves to be looting or plundering. So, I changed the “plundered” in the text to “removed” but left the title as I wrote it — as a reminder for readers to think about whether or not calling these actions “looting” is unfair.]
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Eemian excuses: the warm was different then, polar bears were fine

Today I’ll discuss the response by Polar Bears International representative Steven Amstrup to a comment submitted during their recent “webchat” at The Guardian (Wednesday, November 6), which had to do with the fact that polar bears survived warm periods in the geological past, particularly interglacials.

[Here’s a pdf file of all the questions that were answered by PBI staff: PBI webchat Q&A, also available here]

This is the comment (the first portion of #4 on my list), submitted by MarkBLR:

There was a paper in Science magazine last year (link …) indicating that polar bears became a distinct species about 600kya (+/- 300k years).

This means that they have survived at least two (and possibly eight) previous inter-glacials, in particular the Eemian (130kya to 110kya), when temperatures in the Arctic were 5 to 8 degrees Celcius warmer than current temperatures for several thousand years.

Note that their numbers apparently decreased significantly during the Eemian, and slowly increased as temperatures cooled, but “climate change” was not enough on its own to make them extinct. [my bold]

[We can perhaps forgive Mark for not being able to spell “Celsius” correctly, but Amstrup (see below) has no excuse. The paper in Science Mark refers to is Hailer et al. 2012, discussed in a previous post here. Note that the actual question Mark asked is not included here because Amstrup responded to this portion of his comment only]

Amstrup tries to convince Mark and other readers that polar bear resilience through Eemian warming is irrelevant to the issue of future survival, which I’ll demonstrate is not the case at all.

Here is what Amstrup had to say:
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Polar bear cannibalism and sea ice, the spring of 1976

Remember Ian Stirling’s claim that late freeze up in Western Hudson Bay in 2009 was forcing polar bears to resort to cannibalism (here and here), with gut-wrenching images and video provided for the media? Or Steve Amstrup’s claim for a similar phenomenon in the Southern Beaufort in 2004?

I pointed out that Stirling’s claim was way overblown and that Amstrup’s incidents were almost certainly the result of heavy ice in the spring (not low ice in summer), similar to the heavy ice conditions and polar bear starvation documented in the same region back in 1974-1976.

It turns out that the heavy ice conditions documented in the Eastern Beaufort in the mid-1970s had much broader effects on polar bears and ringed seals than has been appreciated.
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Chukchi/Bering Sea ringed seals doing better despite declines in ice and snow: new study

Ringed seal pup in snow cave

Previously, I highlighted new research results that showed, contrary to expectations, polar bears in the Chukchi Sea subpopulation are doing better – despite declines in extent of September sea ice – since the 1970s. So it might not come as much of a surprise to find that the same is true for the primary prey of polar bears in the Chukchi and Bering Seas, Arctic ringed seals (Phoca hispida hispida).

Surprisingly, less than 6 months after Arctic ringed seals were placed on the American list of “threatened” species (under the ESA, see previous post here), actual research in Alaska has shown that declines in sea ice have proven better for ringed seals, not worse.

At a presentation given at the Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium in March (Anchorage, Alaska) [program and links to pdfs here] Justin Crawford, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) presented the results of ringed seal research conducted by himself and fellow ADF&G biologist Lori Quakenbush in the Chukchi and Bering Seas (posted online by the event organizers, see references below).

As for polar bears, the Crawford and Quakenbush presentation provides some very interesting details on the status of Chukchi and Bering Sea ringed seals over the last 40 years, and contains some mighty “inconvenient” conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

I’ve summarized these details and conclusions below in point form, with a map.
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Chukchi polar bear status contradicts the “message” – new details

Previously, I summarized preliminary results of polar bear research in the Chukchi Sea undertaken between 2008 and 2011 by US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr and US Geological Survey researcher Karyn Rode. At the time, a peer-reviewed paper on this study was promised shortly.

It now appears this paper is indeed on the way. I’m sure of that because a few weeks ago, I came across a conference presentation given by Karyn Rode that is a summary of the upcoming Chukchi research paper. The title of both presentation and ‘in review’ paper is:

“Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations.

Rode’s slide presentation (given at the annual Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium at the end of March, in Anchorage, Alaska) was posted online by the symposium organizers. It provides some very interesting details on the status of Chukchi Sea bears compared to bears in the Southern Beaufort, and contains some mighty “inconvenient” conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

I’ve summarized these details and conclusions below in point form, below the maps.

Figure 1. Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (from Wikipedia), upper. ‘Chukchi Sea’ polar bears are shared between the USA and Russia; ‘Southern Beaufort’ bears are shared between the US and Canada, lower (from PBSG, with labels added). Pink dots are the subpopulations featured in the Rode et al. presentation and upcoming paper.

Figure 1. Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (from Wikipedia), upper. ‘Chukchi Sea’ polar bears are shared between the USA and Russia; ‘Southern Beaufort’ bears are shared between the US and Canada, lower (from PBSG, with labels added). Pink dots are the subpopulations featured in the Rode et al. presentation and upcoming paper.

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Buffet time for polar bears – spring/early summer is for eating baby seals

Spring is the busiest and most important season for polar bears: it is the most important feeding period and it is also when mating occurs. The fat that polar bears put on during the spring and early summer is critical for their survival over the rest of the year and for females, determines whether they can successfully produce cubs the following year.

Mothers and new cubs emerge from their winter dens in late March to early April and those who have chosen to den on land soon head towards the sea ice. For a fabulous photo of a polar bear female and her two young cubs, just out of their winter den, feeding on a bearded seal pup, pop over here. All other bears, including females with older cubs, will already be on the ice, feeding on the first newborn ice seals of the season and any other seals they can catch.

It’s buffet time for polar bears but the most dangerous time for cute baby seals. Continue reading

New Chukchi Sea polar bear survey – exciting preliminary results

Back in October, I wrote about US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr comments about a recent survey of Chukchi Sea polar bears, the results of which are still not published. Since then, I’ve been able to track down a bit of information.

This project appears to have run for five years, from 2008 to 2011. The work was confined to the eastern (US) portion of the Chukchi, see maps below (Polar Bear News 2010; Rode and Regehr 2010). Researchers were doing mark-recapture work with helicopters, putting radio collars on some females and radio ear tags on a few males. They worked primarily in March and April (mating season for polar bears), operating entirely on the offshore sea ice – working, I might add, on bears that technically speaking do not exist, since the official population estimate for this region is “zero” (they are not included in the global estimate of 20,000-25,000, see pdf here,, discussed here).

Figure 1. Chukchi Sea – getting you oriented. Note the location of Kotzebue Sound, northeast of the Bering Strait. Map from Wikipedia.

Figure 1. Chukchi Sea – getting you oriented. Note the location of Kotzebue Sound, northeast of the Bering Strait. Map from Wikipedia.

In 2012, US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr told reporter Jill Burke at Alaska Dispatch that they found the bears were “reproducing well and maintaining good body condition.” I’ve finally found some details regarding what he meant by that statement (although no final reports or peer-reviewed papers are out, see footnote below).

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Goldilocks in the Bering Sea: Less sea ice is bad and more ice is bad

This article from yesterday about sea ice in the Bering Sea is priceless: while we are still being told that below average ice coverage (common 10-20 years ago) is a sign of global warming that means the end of polar bears sometime in the future, it turns out that too much ice is bad, less ice is friendlier and lots of ice is hopefully something that we’ll never see again.

From the article:

After a 2012 Bering Sea snow crab season that saw unusually severe sea ice inhibit fishermen’s efforts to catch almost 89 million pounds of the shellfish, 2013 is shaping up to be much friendlier.

According to Kathleen Cole, a forecaster with the National Weather Service ice desk, this winter was unlikely to match 2012, even before it began. Despite some recent rumors of encroaching ice into the Bering Sea fishery, the situation is better than last year, she said.

“We’re just not going to have a year like last year. It’s going to be, by no means, that bad,” she said. “Last year was something that we’d never seen before, and hopefully something that we’ll never see again.”

Sea ice is still well above average in the Bering Sea this year – as it has been for 7 of the last 10 years. See the ice extent map from NSIDC from yesterday below and my previous post from December 2012: Now that Bering Sea ice cover is high again, variability is normal (note that polar bears of the Bering Sea are considered part of the “Chukchi Sea” subpopulation, which we know practically nothing about, see previous post here). Continue reading