Tag Archives: Churchill

Strange sea ice pattern over Hudson Bay as winds blow polar bears offshore

Winds blew a huge mass of new shorefast sea ice way out into Western Hudson Bay a few days ago (13 November) and very likely took some polar bears with it. This offshore wind phenomenon is common at this time of year – it happened in 2017 – and is often part of the yearly ‘freeze-up’ process for sea ice. But the extent of ice and the distance blown offshore in Hudson Bay this year is impressive.

In previous years, this has happened very early in the freeze-up sequence, well before the ice was thick enough to support polar bears. This year is different: freeze-up was early (starting in late October) and the ice was thick enough off Western Hudson Bay to support bears hunting successfully for seals by the last day of October. By 7 November, most bears had left for the ice, with only a few stragglers left behind – since they were all in good condition due to a late breakup of the ice this summer, there were remarkably few problem with bears in Churchill and some seemed in no hurry to leave once the shorefast ice started to form.

It’s doubtful that any bears out on that wind-blown ice are in any kind of peril. As long as the ice is thick enough to support their weight, they should be fine – and keeping themselves busy catching seals.

The chart above is from NSIDC Masie for 15 November 2020 (Day 320) – it showed the same large offshore patch of ice the day before. However, only today did the Canadian Ice Service (CIS) chart show even part of the offshore patch (below):

In this case, I’m trusting the Masie chart because it seems the CIS sensors aren’t yet set to pick up ice that’s far offshore, as the detailed stage of development chart for 16 November (below) shows (grey-white ice is 15-30 cm thick, grey ice is 10-15 cm, but see discussion below):

However, after I’d almost given up that we’d hear from Andrew Derocher about his polar bears with still-functioning collars, he posted a tracking map late today (below). Even his chart shows that big patch of offshore ice but he didn’t comment on it at all. It appears that of the 9 collars he deployed on females last year only one is on the ice, well offshore (north of Churchill).

Derocher is still claiming that this is not an early freeze-up year even though it’s clear many bears have already left for the ice and only a few stragglers remain, including most of his collared bears. However, some of his bears are probably pregnant (especially the two furthest inland) and won’t be going anywhere this fall. And we already know that many of Derocher’s collared bears were very late to come onshore in August and having only spent 3 months onshore rather than 4 or 5 months they are used to, may now be in no hurry to leave – especially since they know that seals are to be had out on that ‘very thin’ ice just offshore.

Unfortunately, the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill decided not to issue a report for the first week in November (2-8 Nov), so there is no information on the progress of freeze-up and polar bear movements from that authority. There might be one issued tomorrow for the second week (9-15 Nov), if so I’ll post it here.

It’s important to know that even big male bears only need ice that’s about 30 cm thick to hold their weight. And while the newly formed grey ice is technically only 10-15 cm (see the stage of development chart above), the ice offshore this year is very compressed and buckled (see below from 7 November), making it thicker than it might appear on the official ice charts.

 

Western & Southern Hudson Bay polar bears experience earliest freeze-up in decades

This is shaping up to be one of the shortest ice-free seasons in at least 20 years for both Western and Southern Hudson Bay polar bears.

Hudson Bay sea ice at 2 November 2020. NSIDC Masie chart.

Last week, sea ice started forming along the shore of Hudson Bay, from the north end all the way south into James Bay. So far, the shorefast ice that’s forming is only a narrow strip along the coast but is thickening and becoming broader each day, which means that unless something changes dramatically, the bears should all be on the ice at the end of the week, an exodus from shore that hasn’t happened this early in WH since 1993 (the earliest since 1979).

The last WH tagged polar bear didn’t leave the ice this year until 21 August, which means if it’s on the ice by the end of this week it will have spent only 11 weeks onshore – less than 3 months. Even the first bears that came ashore in mid-July will have only spent about 16 weeks on land – at least a month less than they did a decade ago (Stirling and Derocher 2012). Four months spent ashore was the historical average for Western Hudson Bay bears in the 1970s and 1980s (Stirling et al. 1977, 1999). This year, most polar bears will have spent only about 13-14 weeks on land because they did not come ashore until early August.

UPDATE 8 November 2020: Report from Churchill area polar bear guide Kelsey Eliasson, via Facebook Saturday 7 November: “Most bears have left on the ice – including peanut – but still some stragglers” [Peanut’ is a well-known female who has two cubs this year]. See below for sea ice chart for 8 November shows broadening band of grey ice clearly thick enough to support the weight of adult bears (and the same thing is happening in Southern Hudson Bay):

Hudson Bay North daily stage of development 2020 Nov 8_all grey ice

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Some surprises in polar bear sea ice habitat at mid-October 2020

Arctic sea ice has been growing steadily since the minimum extent was reached a month ago, with shorefast ice now developing along the Russian and Alaskan coastlines as ice cover expands in the Central Canadian Arctic. So while it’s true that the main pack of Arctic ice is far from the Russian shoreline, rapidly developing shorefast ice will allow bears to begin hunting seals long before ice in the central Arctic Basin reaches the Siberian shore, as they do in Western and Southern Hudson Bay every fall.

Cropped sea ice extent at 15 October 2020 (Day 289), NSIDC Masie.

And speaking of Western Hudson Bay, it’s a very slow season around Churchill for problem polar bears (photo below) – the quietest mid-October for the Polar Bear Alert Program in the last five years and perhaps the quietest in decades (which I could say for sure if I had the records but I do not).

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Churchill problem polar bear report for week 3 and a triplet litter of cubs spotted

Courtesy the Town of Churchill:

Also, note that a mother with a litter of triplets spotted along the coast of Wapusk National Park (just east and south of Churchill) in good condition, 15 September 2020 (see photo below). Biologist Nick Lunn falsely claimed in 2018 that no triplet litters had been born in Western Hudson Bay since 1996 – a correction made later claimed Lunn meant there hasn’t been any triplet litters seen in the fall, which was also not true in 2017 or in 2020:

Compare weekly stats above for this year to a few previous years at the second week in September:

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First polar bear alert report for Churchill an astonishing seven weeks later than last year

The first report of the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill, Manitoba was released today (1 September), a full seven weeks later than last year due to many bears remaining on the Western Hudson Bay ice much later than they have done in the past.

2020 Aug 31 - Polar Bear Stats_week 1 jpeg

As I mentioned previously, as long as I’ve been collecting these published reports (2015), there has not been a first report of the season issued later than the second week in July, so this year is really unusual and I suspect similar to the 1980s.

I thought it possible that this was a Covid-related delay getting conservation officers to Churchill but as you’ll see above, that appears not to be the case: there simply have been not enough serious problems with bears in Churchill to warrant sending officers out before last week. No information on the general condition of bears was included this year, as it has been in other years (see below).  Activity this last week in August 2020 was similar to the first week in July 2018.

Polar bear Cape East 0 Wakusp NP _24 Aug 2020 earlier

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Hudson Bay sea ice cover at early summer 2020 is similar to the 1980s

Don’t expect to hear this news from polar bear activists busy promoting the supposed threat to polar bears from declining Arctic sea ice but ice cover over Hudson Bay so far this summer has been very similar to what it was in the 1980s – often promoted as ‘the good old days’ for Western Hudson Bay polar bears. As of the end of June 2020, very concentrated ice (9/10-10/10) more than 1 metre thick still covered most of the bay and there was still no open water near Churchill along the west coast down into James Bay.

Hudson Bay weekly concentration 2020 June 29 PNG

Polar bear activists don’t like to have current Hudson Bay sea ice reality ruin their social and news media narrative that ‘polar bears are all gonna die’, so they instead emphasize the obsolete ‘declining trend’ for Western Hudson Bay breakup dates that haven’t been updated since 2015 (e.g. Castro de la Guardia et al. 2017; Lunn et al. 2016). They do this despite the fact their colleagues admit polar bears don’t catch many seals after late June (regardless of sea ice conditions) because it is past the peak spring feeding period (Obbard et al. 2016; Lippold et al. 2019). Like in the 1980s, in 2015 and 2019 some bears stayed on the ice until early August and 2020 is shaping up to be another 1980’s-like summer.

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Amid viral pandemic UK photographer captures images of Canadian polar bear cubs

The Sun ran a photo-essay yesterday (22 March 2020, below) taken by a UK photographer who went to Wapusk National Park just south of Churchill, Manitoba in order to get much-coveted images of polar bear mothers and cubs newly emerged from winter maternity dens. The photos were said to have been taken “early last week” (16-17 March?).

Sun pb emerging with cubs feature 22 March 2020 lead photo

The trees in the photos are a give-away to the location: no other subpopulation regions except Western and Southern Hudson Bay are below the treeline. Scrubby little spruces but ‘trees’ nonetheless. Mothers in more northern regions won’t come out with their cubs until April.

The question is: what was this photographer thinking to travel to a remote Arctic location in the middle of a global pandemic?

UPDATE 24 March 2020 820am PT. I have just heard from photographer Brian Mathews and he had this to say about his trip to Wapusk National Park:

“Context and facts are key as ever. I left the U.K. before any of the measures where in place. I’ve just got back after being in Canada for nearly a month. When I returned to Churchill I self isolated then returned to the U.K. the coverage I got is good for the bears and the positive uplifting feedback I’ve had about the joy they brought into people lives had be brilliant.”

I noted in my response to him that I realize the tour company in Canada bears some responsibility for continuing to operate under the circumstances.

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Flashback Friday: The Politics of Polar Bears CBC documentary from 2014

Worth watching if you haven’t seen it – and a second look if you have – a rare balanced documentary produced by the CBC in 2014 on polar bear conservation, with interviews with biologists Mitch Taylor and Andrew Derocher.

Politics of polar bears title

“In The Politics of Polar Bears, Reg Sherren will pick his way through the message track to help you decide what is really happening with the largest land carnivore on the planet.”

Short version here (about 18 minutes):

Entire version (45:30):

https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2499432823

Online summary by the producer of the film, Reg Sherren (see excerpt below).

The most up-to-date discussion of polar bear numbers and the politics of polar bears are in my popular new book, The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened.

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Western Hudson Bay freeze-up earlier than average for 1980s for the third year in a row

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.

Churchill pbs checking the ice 10 Nov 2019 Amanda Atarling photo

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.

UPDATE 19 November 2019: Polar Bear Alert report for 11-17 Nov (week 20) confirms that freeze-up is underway, bears are heading out on the ice and problem bears held in the ‘jail’ were released 13 November. See below.
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Polar bear activity picks up in Churchill as W Hudson Bay freeze-up time approaches

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.

polar bear churchill 9 Oct 2019 Danielle Daley photo

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