This is the third year in a row that freeze-up of Western Hudson Bay (WH) ice has come earlier than the average of 16 November documented in the 1980s. Reports by folks on the ground near Churchill confirm polar bears are starting to move onto the sea ice that’s developing along the shore after almost 5 months on land. After five good sea ice seasons in a row for WH polar bears, this repeat of an early freeze-up means a sixth good ice season is now possible for 2019-2020.
Sadly for the tourists, however, it means the polar bear viewing season in Churchill will be ending early this year, just like it did last year and the year before.
Polar bear family on the ice off Churchill Manitoba (taken from a helicopter), courtesy Explore.org
When mothers with cubs are out on the ice (see photo above), it’s pretty certain the mass movement from land to sea ice is well underway because these family units are usually the last to leave.
This is week 15 for most polar bears onshore near Churchill in Western Hudson Bay, which means they have been onshore for almost 4 months. Still, photos being circulated are still showing bears in excellent condition and we are just waiting to see if freeze-up this year is as early as it has been for the last two years.
It’s week 7 of the Churchill polar bear season that began in early July and it’s been remarkably quiet: compared to 208 and 2016, there were half as many problem bear incidents in 2019. A few bears have come off the ice near the community and they’ve been in good shape, as are the bears to the east at Cape Churchill (see one captured on live cam 23 August shown below) and the north at Seal River.
But it looks like many more bears than usual may have decided to ride out the slow-melting ice that lingered well past the first week of August and came ashore further south, towards the Manitoba/Ontario border.
If so, these bears will have to make their way north over the summer so they can intercept the first ice forming along the northwest coast off Wapusk National Park near Churchill. That’s why Western Hudson Bay bears are said to undergo a migration: no matter where they leave the ice in summer, most bears head to areas around Churchill so that they can resume seal hunting on the early fall ice.
A paucity of bears around Churchill in late summer/early fall is not unprecedented, however. Stirling and colleagues pointed out that in 1972 and 1973, for reasons they could not explain, there had been fewer bears than usual around Churchill well before freeze-up and therefore, fewer problem bears (Stirling et al. 1977:17).
Below is a comparison of the Polar Bear Alert Program report for last week (Week 7, Aug 19-25) to previous years.
Polar bear habitat update for the first week of August 2019 shows there is still more sea ice than average in Hudson Bay, the southern-most area of continuous habitation for this species. That certainly wasn’t part of the predictions of doom, especially since freeze-up in that region for the last two years has also been earlier-than-average which means a shorter ice-free season than we’ve seen for decades.
Despite ice coverage for the Arctic ice as a whole being marginally lower than it has been since 1979 for this time of year, sea ice for the first week of August was also above average around Svalbard in the Barents Sea and higher than the last few years in the Central Arctic, which is a critical summer refugium for polar bears that live in the peripheral seas of the Arctic Ocean, including the Chukchi (see photo below, taken in early August 2018).
Posted in Polar bear attacks, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Central Arctic, Churchill, facts, Hudson Bay, polar bear, prediction, problem bear, range, sea ice, southern, Svalbard, tagged bears
For all the hand-wringing over sea ice extent this year and its supposed similarity to 2012, what is truly remarkable is that at the end of July ice remains adjacent to every single major terrestrial summer refugia known to be important for polar bears. Those refugia sites include (from west to east, starting in the Chukchi Sea): Wrangel Island, western Chukotka, Severnaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, East Greenland, virtually all the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (including Southampton Island in Foxe Basin and the southwest and eastern coasts of Baffin Island), and Western Hudson Bay.
Few bears spend the entire summer onshore along the Alaska coast: most still spend the summer on the sea ice and move with it as it contracts toward the Arctic Basin, as do many bears in the Barents, Kara, East Siberian, and Chukchi Seas. Until a few weeks ago, however, there was enough ice present that Beaufort Sea bears could go ashore if they wanted to do so. Continue reading
Posted in Advocacy, Conservation Status, Population, Sea ice habitat
Tagged 2012, Churchill, extent, facts, Hudson Bay, July, onshore, polar bear, problem bears, refugia, sea ice, summer, terrestrial
We are constantly told things are getting worse for polar bears, especially those in Western Hudson Bay, because the ice-free season there was predicted to decline earlier than other regions. It hasn’t turned out that way but that does not stop the public rhetoric of doom or NGOs pleading for funds.
Last week, the Town of Churchill made public its first problem polar bear report of the year but oddly, it has only one entry. This is the first time I’ve seen such a sparse first report: since 2015, the first few incidents of the season have been subsumed into a first week report (issued no earlier than the first week of July) that announces the arrival of many bears on land.
Is this report of an isolated incident an attempt by Polar Bear Alert officials to make sure the first report of the season was not issued weeks later than usual? Or was it posted in isolation because the official response to the incident was caught on video and shared on social media (see below)?
UPDATE 22 July 2019: Published early this afternoon by the Town of Churchill, the problem polar bear report for the 2nd week of the season claims an error in last week’s report that they only just noticed when preparing this week’s report (but a full 24 hours after this blog post was published – but that’s probably a coincidence). Below is the report for week 2 (15-21 July 2019), showing that three incidents occurred last week.
Posted in Advocacy, Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged activity report, breakup, Churchill, fat bears, hazing, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, polar bear, polar bear alert, problem bears, sea ice, video