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Beaufort Sea polynyas open two weeks before 1975 – open water is good news for polar bears

With masses of very thick, multiyear ice off Alaska this spring, the developing polynyas (open water) at either end of the Beaufort Sea are providing essential polar bear hunting habitat.

SB polynyas on ice thickness map 14 May 2015_PolarBearScience

Patches of open water in the Beaufort Sea are naturally recurring phenomena. This year we have two excellent examples, shown by the yellow arrows in the sea ice thickness map above (from the Naval Research Laboratory).

The eastern-most polynya forms in the Canadian portion of the Beaufort most years in the spring. This open water feature is so common it has a name – the Cape Bathurst polynya. Last year, there wasn’t an obvious polynya there until sometime in June, but in 1975, a patch of open water almost as large (or larger) as this year’s had developed by the end of May (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Cape Bathurst polynya at 28 May 1975 (Smith and Rigby 1981: Fig. 14h), with the extent probably underestimated, and the polynya this year at 14 May (Canadian Ice Service). Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Cape Bathurst polynya at 28 May 1975 (Smith and Rigby 1981:Fig. 14h) and the polynya this year at 14 May (Canadian Ice Service). See discussion in the text below about the relative sizes. Click to enlarge.

According to the experts that study them, the timing and extent of the polynya formation depends on wind (Dunbar 1981:29), not temperature. This means that this spring’s polynya formation in the eastern Beaufort isn’t a symptom of global warming, it isn’t missing polar bear habitat,” and it isn’t a sign of early sea ice breakup.

In fact, the Cape Bathurst polynya is a critical place for ringed seals and bearded seals to congregate in spring. Therefore, this is where many Southern Beaufort polar bears go to hunt. The presence of the polynya is especially crucial in years like this one, when very thick sea ice covers most of the Beaufort Sea.  Continue reading