The Barents Sea – and Svalbard in particular – has had very little sea ice this winter but recent evidence suggests pregnant females adapted by moving east to Franz Josef Land to have their cubs. The surge in ice that’s come over the last few weeks will, however, be welcome habitat for the critical hunt of fat newborn seals that takes place primarily in April and May.
It was only last fall that Norwegian biologist Jon Aars (photo above taken by him in August 2015) was touting the fat condition of Svalbard-area polar bears he and his team saw in August and admitted the population had increased by a whopping 42% since 2004 – despite dire predictions of a drastic decline. In fact, 2014/2015 was a great year for the area’s polar bears.
However, in the fall of 2015 sea ice was so late forming around Svalbard that it seemed impossible that any females would get to traditional denning grounds on the east coast in time to give birth. There was no sea ice to speak of until late December, so it seemed virtually certain that all females had gone to Franz Josef Land further east (in Russia) – as they are known to do – to utilized its alternative denning sites.
It’s called resilience – the ability to shift behaviour in response to changing conditions. In this case, all indications are that shifting den locations to Franz Josef Land is a long-standing response of Svalbard area polar bears to low ice conditions. This shift does not even require a movement outside their subpopulation boundaries, let alone a movement outside the ill-defined “sea ice ecoregions” originally defined by Steven Amstrup and colleagues (2008) to support their prediction that polar bears will likely be extinct by 2100, taken up later by others since.
Some polar bear specialists appear to believe that if Barents Sea conditions are not precisely what they were in the 1980s (examples here and here), polar bears cannot possibly survive. But the bears are showing them otherwise – and demonstrating how they likely survived previous warm periods like the Holocene Optimum ~9,000 years ago and the Eemian Interglacial ~115,000-130,000 years ago (CERQA 2014:66) without population numbers getting anywhere near extinction levels.