Tag Archives: Chukchi Sea

Thick sea ice in the Western Arctic is not good habitat for polar bears, seals, or walrus

A few weeks into the Arctic summer (July-September), sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas is dominated by thick, multi-year ice.

At this time of year, multi-year ice is an important refuge habitat for many polar bears when seasonal ice melts out. However, it provides few opportunities for hunting seals. In fact, it is nearly as devoid of food as is the shore during the melt season. Consequently, most polar bears eat little over the summer whether they are on land or on sea ice due to the scarcity of seals.

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State of the Polar Bear 2021: polar bears continued to thrive

The current health and abundance of polar bears continues to be at odds with predictions that the species is suffering serious negative impacts from reduced summer sea ice blamed on human-caused climate change.

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Polar bears at Kolyuchin Island weather station provide a rare photographer’s treat

Russian wildlife photographer Dmitry Kokh took some photos and video last year of polar bears hunkered down at an abandoned weather station on the Chukchi Sea coast and he apparently won a prize for one of them, shown below. The shots are very cool, so I’ve provided some context for the story and posted the video here.

‘Summer Season’ by Dmitry Kokh
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Chukchi Sea ice that didn’t melt this summer is now 2+m thick between Wrangel Island and the shore

Thick multiyear ice between Wrangel Island and the shore is now more than 2m thick, potentially impacting fall feeding for bears that routinely summer on Wrangel or the north coast of Chukotka.

Rapidly-forming sea ice in the Laptev and East Siberian Seas this fall – generated by cold winds from Siberia in late October despite warmer than ususal temperatures earlier in the month – has trapped a number of Russian ships that are being rescued by ice-breakers (below), according to a report in the Barents Observer earlier this week.

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Conditions were not golden for polar bears in the 1980s despite what activist expert claims

Does the following statement stand up to scrutiny – i.e. a fact check – of the scientific literature on polar bear ecology?

In the 1980s, “the males were huge, females were reproducing regularly and cubs were surviving well,” Amstrup said. “The population looked good.”

[Steven Amstrup, Anchorage Daily News (Borenstein and colleagues), 5 November 2021: ‘How warming affects Arctic sea ice and polar bears’]
Steven Amstrup

In short, it does not.

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Most Chukchi Sea ice in 20 years means no walrus feasts for polar bears at famous Russian cliffs

After years of hype, including documentary over-reach by David Attenborough and his collaborators at WWF and Netflix, there has been relatively abundant ice in the Chukchi Sea this summer, particulary along the Russian coast and around Wrangel Island, which in recent years have been important summer refuge areas for polar bears and Pacific walrus.

Walrus carcasses at the base of the cliff at Cape Schmidt, September 2017. Credit: Y. Basov.

This year, there has been nothing like the complete retreat of ice into the Arctic Basin as happened in 2007, 2012, and 2020. The chart below shows the ice extent at 11 October 2021:

Wrangel Island was surrounded by ice in 2000 and 2001, which made access to walrus haulouts on the island impossible (Kochnev 2004). Most of the walrus haulouts along the Chukotka coast were also ice-covered in September in those years, as were all of the western locations in 2021 – as the ice charts below show. The extra ice will have drastically affected the distribution of walrus this year, which in turn will have meant no walrus carcasses for polar bears to feast on as they have done for many years now.

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Wrangel Island research team counted a record number of Chukchi Sea polar bears in 2020

Many Chukchi Sea polar bears spend the summer on Wrangel Island and a survey there conducted by Russian researchers in 2020 reportedly collected data on a record 747 bears, well up from the 589 reportedly counted in 2017 by the same team (photo below is from 2015).

Note the latest survey of the Chukchi Sea estimated about 3,000 bears inhabit the region (AC SWG 2018; Regehr et al. 2018), at least 1,000 more that the figure of 2,000 used in recent IUCN assessments and survival predictions (Amstrup et al. 2007; Regehr et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015). Wrangel Island is the primary terrestrial denning area in the Chukchi Sea (Garner et al. 1984; Rode et al. 2014) and a recently published study showed that the body condition (i.e. fatness) and litter size of Chukchi Sea polar bears has not been negatively affected by low summer sea ice (Rode et al. 2021).

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Abundant Chukchi Sea ice explains silence on walrus haulouts in Alaska and Russia so far

There has been abundant sea ice in the Chukchi Sea this summer: so much so that walrus herds have not found it necessary to use beaches on the Alaskan coast as resting haulouts. Now, in early September, almost the entire northern Chukotka coast is covered in ice, blocking use of those beaches that have been traditionally used in September through November. Wrangel Island (an important denning area for polar bears) is still almost surrounded by ice, which hasn’t happened in decades.

Just two years ago, a big deal was made of the fact that the entire coast of Alaska was ice-free by early August and that walrus herds had come ashore at Point Lay earlier than any year since 2007 – all put down to climate change. Last year, walrus started to come ashore one day earlier than in 2019, on July 29. Although no one has presented any evidence that the walrus are suffering in any way due to using beach haulouts during the ice-free season (MacCracken et al. 2017), the haulouts are still presented as bad news and portends of catastrophe to come.

Inset map above shows the location of Point Lay, Alaska where Pacific walrus haulout during the ice-free season.

This year is a totally different story and of course, the biologists are suddenly silent.

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New survey estimates 10x as many polar bears in Russian section of Chukchi Sea as in USA portion

A joint US/Russian aerial survey has estimated that a minimum of 3,435 polar bears (but possibly as many as 5,444) likely inhabited the Chukchi Sea in 2016, quite a bit more than a previous study that estimated a population size of 2,937 the same year (which used data from one small US area extrapolated to the entire region).

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More polar bear catastrophe hype: bears use four times more energy than expected

Last week (24 February 2021), The Guardian was promoting a study that claims polar bears now use four times more energy than expected to survive because of ‘major ice loss’ in the Arctic, as a way of suggesting that the animals are already on their way to extinction.

But like many papers of this type, this study by Anthony Pagano and Terri Williams (Pagano and Williams 2021) is yet another model describing what biologists think may be happening based on experimental data collected from individual bears, not a conclusion based on evidence collected from subpopulations with the worst amounts of ice loss.

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