Tag Archives: Eastern Beaufort

Great polar bear red herring in the Southern Beaufort

Red herring iconWe know that thick-ice springs occurred in 1974, 1975, 1986, 1992, 2004, and 2005 in the former ‘Eastern Beaufort’ – now the southern portion of the ‘Northern Beaufort’ and the eastern portion of the ‘Southern Beaufort.’ We know that these severe spring ice conditions negatively impacted both polar bears and ringed seals in this region every decade since the 1960s because the effects have been documented by numerous studies conducted in April through May for polar bears (Amstrup et al. 2006; Cherry et al. 2009; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling et al. 1993; Stirling et al. 2008) and in June and July for ringed seals (Harwood et al. 2012; Smith 1987), see previous posts here, here, and here.

For example, even though Ian Stirling and colleagues argued in their 2008 paper that the thick spring ice conditions in 2004, 2005 and 2006 (but not those in previous decades) were caused by storms initiated or intensified by greater amounts of open water in previous summers, they did not deny that the thick-ice springs occurred. They stated quite clearly that:

The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s each experienced a two- to three-year decline in seal productivity in the eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf, associated with heavy ice conditions, around mid-decade. Each was followed by a decline in polar bear reproduction and condition, after which both seal and bear populations recovered (Smith, 1987; Harwood et al., 2000; Stirling, 2002). The beginning of each of those three periods was associated with heavy ice conditions through the winter before the reproductive decline of the seals, followed by a late spring breakup.” [my bold]

So, I have to say, I was shocked but not surprised to find that in the more recent scientific literature, the phenomenon of thick-ice springs every decade in Southern and Northern Beaufort has been deliberately ‘disappeared.’ 

Not surprised because I suspected it had happened — this issue was a feature of the Stirling and Derocher (2012) paper from late last year which was the topic of my very first blog post, “Cooling the polar bear spin.

However, I think it is important to document how the transmogrification of sea ice effects on polar bears was managed in the scientific literature so that everyone can see exactly what has been done. In a truly astonishing move for what is supposed to be a field of science, thick-ice springs have been effectively replaced by an open-water red herring as the scourge of Southern Beaufort polar bears.

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Did polar bear numbers in E. Beaufort fluctuate each decade due to thick ice years?

Now that we have a plausible explanation (previous post here) for why shorefast ice in the Eastern Beaufort got too thick for ringed seals every ten years or so, it’s time to talk about the effect that this recurring sea ice phenomenon might have had on polar bear population numbers.

We know from the reports of polar bear biologists that without fat young seals to eat in the spring, some bears in those thick-ice springs came close to starving and many mothers lost all or most of their cubs (Amstrup et al. 2006; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling et al. 2008). This presumably had some impact on population numbers – the question is: how bad was it?

None of the reports on the effects of the thick ice have given us any indication of how many polar bears might have died or lost their cubs. However, Ian Stirling and colleagues (Stirling et al. 2011) recently published a paper on the Northern Beaufort subpopulation that looked, at first glance, to have done just that.

You have to keep in mind that the geographic area in question – the Eastern Beaufort – is not an official polar bear subpopulation region – at least, not any more. As Fig. 1 below shows, the Eastern Beaufort was once its own, strictly Canadian region (or at least, a strictly Canadian research region) see previous post here), but management is now shared between two subpopulations and managed by two governments (Canada and the USA). About half of the bears of the “Eastern Beaufort” reside in the ‘Northern Beaufort’ subpopulation and the other half live in the ‘Southern Beaufort’ subpopulation.

Figure 1. Re-jigging of polar bear subpopulations now splits what used to be an entirely Canadian segment, called the “Eastern Beaufort” (map on the left, from Stirling and Lunn 1997), into “Southern Beaufort” (shared with the USA) and “Northern Beaufort,” with the Canada-USA border at 141 W (map on the right, from Stirling et al. 2011). Labels added for clarity. Most of the polar bears sampled for the Stirling et al. paper were captured along the west and south coasts of Banks Island, although a few were captured north of Banks Island in M’Clure Strait and in Amundsen Gulf to the southeast.

Figure 1. Re-jigging of polar bear subpopulations now splits what used to be an entirely a Canadian research segment, called the “Eastern Beaufort” (map on the left, from Stirling and Lunn 1997), into management regions called “Southern Beaufort” (shared with the USA) and “Northern Beaufort,” with the Canada-USA border at 141 W (map on the right, from Stirling et al. 2011, Fig. 1). Labels added. Most of the polar bears sampled for the Stirling et al. paper were captured along the west and south coasts of Banks Island, although a few were captured in M’Clure Strait and in Amundsen Gulf.

Despite the changing boundaries, ringed seals and polar bears in the Eastern Beaufort have been the focus of research since the early 1970s. In part, this is because the region has been targeted for oil exploration and studies on both species have been part of the associated ecological impact assessments (Stirling et al. 1993).

Getting back to the point, did Stirling et al. 2011 find fluctuations in polar bear numbers in the Northern Beaufort that might reflect the periodic bouts of thick spring ice in the Eastern Beaufort? Unfortunately, no — the data lack necessary precision. You’ll see why, I think, from the summary below.  Continue reading

Why is it that every decade, Eastern Beaufort sea ice gets really thick?

I’ve written before about the incidents of starving polar bears in the eastern portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea (here, here, and here). For two or three years every decade since the 1960s, shorefast ice in the Eastern Beaufort (Fig. 1) has become too thick and compressed in the spring for ringed seals to maintain their breathing holes, so most or all of them presumably go elsewhere — as seals did in Greenland when ice got too thick there (Vibe 1965). With few or no seal pups born during March and April in thick ice years, some bears had a hard time finding enough food: starving bears and dying cubs were the result.

Figure 1. Eastern portion of the southern Beaufort Sea.  The communities of Tuktoyatuk (locally known as ‘Tuk’), and Sachs Harbour on southern Banks Island, have been useful starting points for polar bear research because they are accessible by plane via the larger community of Inuvik The light blue portions, e.g. along western Banks Island and the Eastern Beaufort/Yukon mainland coast, indicate shallow continental shelf areas (20 km wide in places) where extensive shorefast ice develops every winter. Main map from Beaufort Sea Partnership, inset map from Wikipedia.

Figure 1. ‘Eastern Beaufort’ (yellow square) polar bear study region.
The communities of Tuktoyatuk (locally known as ‘Tuk’), and Sachs Harbour on southern Banks Island have been used as base camps for polar bear research because they are accessible by plane via the larger community of Inuvik.
The light blue portions along western Banks Island and the Eastern Beaufort/Yukon mainland coast indicate shallow continental shelf areas (20 km wide in places) where extensive shorefast ice develops every winter.
Main map from Beaufort Sea Partnership, inset map from Wikipedia.

I’ve been trying to get my head around why this would happen in the Eastern Beaufort. Once or twice – maybe – but several times every decade? What on earth drives such a process?

So, I did some reading (actually, quite a lot of reading) and have what appears to be at least a partial answer.

All indications are that the occasional development of exceptionally thick spring ice in the Eastern Beaufort is the result of an entirely natural, cyclical phenomenon. However, some polar bear biologists are attempting to blame the latest episode (but not earlier ones) on increased amounts of open water in the Chukchi Sea during fall of the early 2000s. That doesn’t seem a plausible explanation to me, given the history of the sea ice in this region. Have a look.

Figure 2. Beaufort sea pressure ridges, spring 1949. Courtesy Wikipedia (from NOAA “At the ends of the Earth” image collection #corp1014).

Figure 2. Beaufort sea pressure ridges, spring 1949. Courtesy Wikipedia (from NOAA’s “At the ends of the Earth” image collection #corp1014).

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NSIDC says the sea ice minimum in 1964 was not different from 1979, 1981, or 2001

I just came across the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) “monthly highlights” article for April 2013 (Glimpses of sea ice past), which turned out to be a rather more interesting story than it appeared at first glance.

The article chronicles the details of how NSIDC technicians pieced together photos taken by the Nimbus 1 satellite between August 28 and September 23, 1964 – of both the Arctic and the Antarctic – to create an estimate of sea ice extent at September 1964 for both regions. For the Arctic, this was the yearly minimum; for the Antarctic, the yearly maximum.

NSIDC scientist Walt Meier was part of this effort and he and colleagues Gallaher and Campbell recently published their findings in the journal The Cryosphere (Meier et al. 2013). For the Arctic estimate, they had to add in data from Alaskan and Russian sea ice charts because the 1964 satellite data was not complete. This means the ice extent figure they came up with is not a true ‘satellite only’ figure but a composite one.

One of the things they did in their analysis was to place the 1964 value on a graph of the more recent 1979-2012 data, which really helps put it into perspective (see Fig. 1 below).

Figure 1. This is Fig. 7 from the Meier et al. 2013 paper, to which I’ve added labels. Meier et al. call this a “time series of Arctic September sea ice extent.” The estimate for 1964 is the red dot on the far left (with its error bars), which I’ve circled (I also added the red label for 1964 and the black line). Note the Y-axis on the left goes to 3.0 million km2, not zero. The solid blue line is the monthly average for September from passive microwave data (1979-2012), and the blue dashed lines are a “three-day average of the high and low range of daily extents during the month.” The 1964 estimate of 6.90 ± 0.3 million km2 is just about identical to 1979, 1981, and 2001 and well within the average for 1979-2000. However, it’s significantly lower than the previous estimate of 8.28 million km2 for 1964 made by the UK Hadley Centre in 2003 (Meier et al. 2013:704).

Figure 1. This is Fig. 7 from the Meier et al. 2013 paper, to which I’ve added labels. Meier et al. call this a “time series of Arctic September sea ice extent.” The estimate for 1964 is the red dot on the far left (with its error bars), which I’ve circled (I also added the red label for 1964 and the black line). Note the Y-axis on the left goes to 3.0 million km2, not zero. The solid blue line is the monthly average for September from passive microwave data (1979-2012), and the blue dashed lines are a “three-day average of the high and low range of daily extents during the month.” The 1964 estimate of 6.90 ± 0.3 million km2 is just about identical to 1979, 1981, and 2001 and well within the average for 1979-2000. However, Meier and colleagues note it is significantly lower than the previous estimate of 8.28 million km2 for 1964, made by the UK Hadley Centre in 2003.

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