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):
Posted in Conservation Status, Life History, Population, Sea ice habitat
Tagged breakup, Churchill, computer models, freeze-up, future, Hudson Bay, ice-free season, polar bear, predictions, sea ice
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.
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).
Posted in Life History, Polar bear attacks, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Barents Sea, Beaufort Sea, Churchill, Hudson Bay, pack ice, polar bear, polar bear alert, problem bears, sea ice, shorefast ice, thickness
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.
“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):
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.
Posted in Advocacy, Conservation Status, Population, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Andrew Derocher, CBC, Churchill, condition, documentary, jail, Mitch Taylor, polar bear, Polar Bears International, politics, sea ice, weights
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.
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.
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.