Tag Archives: Cherry

Polar bears and W. Hudson Bay sea ice breakup 2016

Breakup for Western Hudson Bay (WHB) is looking to be later than usual this year, given that the average breakup date since 1991 has been July 1 (using a 30% threshold) – only a few days from now – and the ice in WHB is nowhere near 50% coverage, let alone 30%.

Churchill_Polar_Bear_2004-11-15 Wikipedia

Note that few WHB bears come off the ice around Churchill – most come ashore along the southwest coast of Hudson Bay (almost into SHB) and make their way north over the course of the summer to meet the ice as it reforms in the fall north around Churchill – that’s why it’s called a “migration.”


There’s still a lot of ice left in Hudson Bay, as the Canadian Ice Service map for 29 June 2016 (below) shows: Sea ice extent Canada 2016 June 29 CIS

It seems to me that breakup for WHB this year is looking rather like 2014, which was something like a week later than the average since 1991, but time will tell. See below for comparison to 2009 (a late breakup year), 2015, and 2013 (lots of variability!), as well as a discussion of when bears come ashore in relation to this sea ice breakup benchmark.

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Hudson Bay breakup later than average, longer hunting season for polar bears

Due to the atypical pattern of sea ice melt on Hudson Bay this year, 2015 will definitely be a later than average breakup year – perhaps not as late as 1992 but maybe almost as late as 2009. Easing into the first days of Arctic summer, there is still a lot of polar bear habitat left on Hudson Bay, especially in the east.

Hudson Bay breakup 2015 vs 2009 at 29 June_MASIE

Although official breakup in 2009 was only a little later than usual (9 July), bears came ashore about the same time (after mid-August) as they did in 1992, when breakup was very late (30 July). With the pattern this year being so unusual (and the melt so slow over the last few weeks), who knows how late it could be before the last bears leave the ice in 2015?

There is definitely more sea ice this year on the bay than there was last year, when breakup was about average for the last 24 years.

UPDATE 2 July 2015: CIS weekly ice coverage graphs added to the end of this post. Hudson Bay ice highest since 2009 and Davis Strait highest since 1994! Have a look.
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Hudson Bay breakup progressing slowly, still lots of polar bear habitat

Not much change in sea ice coverage since last week – most of Hudson Bay is still covered with concentrated ice, which is good news for Western and Southern Hudson Bay polar bears. They are still free to roam and hunt over most of the ice-covered bay.

Hudson Bay breakup 8 June 2015 vs 1 June_PolarBearScience

There may be slightly less ice than average for this time of year (Fig. 1, below) but coverage is still >70% with concentrated ice and does not appear to be melting quickly (see charts above and Fig. 2, below).

The dates for three previous earliest breakups according to Lunn and colleagues (Fig. 3) have come and gone, as all were in the first week of June (more on that in an upcoming post) – no records broken. More graphs and maps below, see previous posts here and here.
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Hudson Bay breakup date for 2015 will really depend on which definition you use

Is breakup imminent for Hudson Bay sea ice? Probably not, but this year more than ever, it will depend on how you define it. Hudson Bay concentratation_2015 June 1_CIS Despite a large patch of open water in western Hudson Bay (CIS chart above, for 1 June), there is still more than 70% sea ice coverage over the entire bay as of this week, when you use the standard breakup definition of 50% ice coverage (Fig. 1).  Ice remaining over the bay is mostly 90% or greater, as the chart above shows – which means there is still a lot of polar bear hunting habitat remaining.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Sea ice coverage over Hudson Bay, as a percentage, for the week of 4 June, 1971-2015. Click to enlarge.

The interconnected region of Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, and southern Davis Strait (Fig. 2), what the Canadian Ice Service calls “Regional Hudson Bay,” is only slightly below average for the week of 4 June.

Regional Hudson Bay, week of 4 June.

Figure 2. Regional Hudson Bay, week of 4 June. Click to enlarge.

Since ice concentration is factored into breakup date calculation, a record-early breakup is simply not possible, since the previous record date (2 June, for 1990) has already passed. It might be an earlier than average breakup year but not very early, based on the 50% coverage definition (Fig. 3, below). This year, because of the unusual pattern of breakup of Hudson Bay ice, it will be critical for polar bears which definition of breakup is used – the old, 50% method (adopted because it’s what sea ice professionals used) or the newest one, which was determined to be most relevant to WHB polar bears (Cherry et al. 2013).

UPDATE 6 June 2015: I’ve added the forecast for ice conditions over the summer for North America (which for these folks includes June because it’s aimed at temperate NA, polar bear folks call June the end of spring), provided by the Canadian Ice Service: “Seasonal outlook for North American Arctic Waters issued by the North American Ice Service on 2 June 2015” [points of potential interest marked] The sea ice forecast (Table 1) for southwestern Hudson Bay (where most western and southern Hudson Bay polar bears come ashore) is for complete ice melt by 1 Aug, eight days later than the earliest date over the period 1968-2013. Time will tell if that’s what happens.
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Declining polar bear weights and early breakup dates in WHB, Part I: What’s a starving bear?

The oft-repeated claim that polar bears are starving in Western Hudson Bay (e.g., here, here, here, and here) comes primarily from a 10 year old study that documented a declining trend in polar bear body condition (a biology euphemism for relative fatness) between 1980 and 2004, which appeared to correlate with earlier and earlier breakup dates for Hudson Bay.

Figure 1. Polar bear female with cub, 2009, Churchill, Western Hudson Bay. Wikipedia.

Figure 1. Polar bear female with cub, 2009, Churchill, Western Hudson Bay. Wikipedia.

The authors of that study (polar bear specialist Ian Stirling and NASA sea ice researcher Claire Parkinson) reported the body weights of lone female bears captured in Western Hudson Bay between 1980 and 2004. The trend over time in those bear weights was then correlated with the overall change in dates of sea ice breakup on Hudson Bay for that period.

However, it turns out that while the trend of body condition and the trend in breakup dates indeed correlated over time, the actual year to year data did not. The question is, what does that mean for the claim that polar bears in WHB are starving?
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Record sea ice loss in 2007 had no effect on polar bears, Chukchi study confirms

One aspect of the recently published study on Chukchi Sea polar bears (Rode et al.2014 [now in print] 2013; see here and here) has not been stressed enough: their finding that the differences in overall condition between bears in the Chukchi and Southern Beaufort Seas came down to disparities in spring feeding opportunities and therefore, the condition of spring sea ice.

The fact that spring — not summer — is the most critical period for polar bears is something I’ve pointed out before (see here and here, for example) but it’s worth repeating at this time of year, when all eyes are on the annual ice minimum. It is often treated as a given that the decline in extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic since 1979 has been detrimental to polar bears. However, this is an assumption that we can now say is not supported by scientific evidence (see summary of that evidence here).

The results published by Rode et al. (2014 2013) not only add further support to the conclusion that declines in summer sea ice have not harmed polar bears, but should put the matter to rest – unless new evidence to the contrary is produced.

Chukchi bears, the report tells us, had more food available in the spring than Southern Beaufort bears (see map below) and this was the primary reason that bears were doing very well in the Chukchi and not quite as well in the Southern Beaufort. And because the polar bears for this study were captured and measured in mid-March to early May, from 2008 to 2011, they reflect spring-time conditions for 2008-2011 as well as year-round conditions from 2007 through 2010.

This means that the annual low ice extent for 2007 (record-breaking at the time), in the fall before this study began, had no discernible negative effect on either Chukchi or Southern Beaufort polar bears – and neither did similarly low annual minimums in two of the three remaining years of the study (Fig 1).

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at August 27, 2007 – the lowest extent that year (downloaded September 15, 2013 from IARC-JAXA, Arctic Sea-ice Monitor). At the time, it was the lowest extent recorded since 1979 (2012 broke that record). This (2007) was the fall before the Rode & Regehr study on Chukchi/Southern Beaufort polar bears began (2008-2011). The ice was almost as low in September 2008 and 2010, while 2009 was more like 2013.

Figure 1. Sea ice extent at August 27, 2007 – the lowest extent that year (downloaded September 15, 2013 from IARC-JAXA, Arctic Sea-ice Monitor). At the time, it was the lowest extent recorded since 1979 (2012 broke that record). This (2007) was the fall before the Rode & Regehr study on Chukchi/Southern Beaufort polar bears began (2008-2011). The ice was almost as low in 2008 and 2010, while 2009 was more like 2013.

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Great polar bear red herring in the Southern Beaufort

Red herring iconWe know that thick-ice springs occurred in 1974, 1975, 1986, 1992, 2004, and 2005 in the former ‘Eastern Beaufort’ – now the southern portion of the ‘Northern Beaufort’ and the eastern portion of the ‘Southern Beaufort.’ We know that these severe spring ice conditions negatively impacted both polar bears and ringed seals in this region every decade since the 1960s because the effects have been documented by numerous studies conducted in April through May for polar bears (Amstrup et al. 2006; Cherry et al. 2009; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling et al. 1993; Stirling et al. 2008) and in June and July for ringed seals (Harwood et al. 2012; Smith 1987), see previous posts here, here, and here.

For example, even though Ian Stirling and colleagues argued in their 2008 paper that the thick spring ice conditions in 2004, 2005 and 2006 (but not those in previous decades) were caused by storms initiated or intensified by greater amounts of open water in previous summers, they did not deny that the thick-ice springs occurred. They stated quite clearly that:

The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s each experienced a two- to three-year decline in seal productivity in the eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf, associated with heavy ice conditions, around mid-decade. Each was followed by a decline in polar bear reproduction and condition, after which both seal and bear populations recovered (Smith, 1987; Harwood et al., 2000; Stirling, 2002). The beginning of each of those three periods was associated with heavy ice conditions through the winter before the reproductive decline of the seals, followed by a late spring breakup.” [my bold]

So, I have to say, I was shocked but not surprised to find that in the more recent scientific literature, the phenomenon of thick-ice springs every decade in Southern and Northern Beaufort has been deliberately ‘disappeared.’ 

Not surprised because I suspected it had happened — this issue was a feature of the Stirling and Derocher (2012) paper from late last year which was the topic of my very first blog post, “Cooling the polar bear spin.

However, I think it is important to document how the transmogrification of sea ice effects on polar bears was managed in the scientific literature so that everyone can see exactly what has been done. In a truly astonishing move for what is supposed to be a field of science, thick-ice springs have been effectively replaced by an open-water red herring as the scourge of Southern Beaufort polar bears.

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