Tag Archives: feeding

Spring feeding for polar bears is over – sea ice levels are now largely irrelevant

Polar bears in virtually all regions will now have finished their intensive spring feeding, which means sea ice levels are no longer an issue. A few additional seals won’t make much difference to a bear’s condition at this point, except perhaps for young bears that haven’t had a chance to feed as heavily as necessary over the spring due to inexperience or competition.

Polar bear feeding by season simple_Nov 29 2015

The only seals available on the ice for polar bears to hunt in early July through October are predator-savvy adults and subadults. But since the condition of the sea ice makes escape so much easier for the seals to escape, most bears that continue to hunt are unsuccessful – and that’s been true since the 1970s. So much for the public hand-wringing over the loss of summer sea ice on behalf of polar bear survival!

Polar bears in most areas of the Arctic are at their fattest by late June. They are well prepared to go without food for a few months if necessary – a summer fast is normal for polar bears, even for those that spend their time on the sea ice.

Putting on hundreds of pounds of fat in the spring to last through periods of food scarcity later in the year (at the height of summer and over the winter) is the evolutionary adaptation that has allowed polar bears to live successfully in the Arctic.
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Polar bear habitat update mid-May: little change since 1989 despite CO2 increase

Sea ice habitat for polar bears has not become progressively worse each year during their season of critical feeding and mating, as some scaremongers often imply. It’s true that absolute extent of Arctic ice is lower this spring than it was in 1979. However, according to NSIDC Masie figures, polar bear habitat at mid-May registers about 12 million km2, just as it did in 2006 (although it is distributed a little differently); other data show spring extent has changed little since a major decline occurred in 1989, despite ever-rising CO2 levels.

Polar bear feeding_Shutterstock_sm

In other words, there has been virtually no change in sea ice cover over the last 12 years, despite the fact that atmospheric CO2 has now surpassed 410 parts per million, a considerable and steady increase over levels in 2006 which were about 380 ppm (see below, from the Scripps Oceanographic Laboratory, included in the Washington Post story 3 May 2018):

Scripps CO2 curve at 29 April 2018

Not only that, but if rising CO2 levels were responsible for the decline of sea ice and implied effects on polar bears since 1979 (when CO2 levels were around 340 ppm), why has spring ice extent been so variable since 1989 (when the first big decline occurred) but so little changed overall since then? See the NSIDC graph below for April:

Sea ice 2018 April average_NSIDC graph

This year on day 134 (14 May), global ice cover registered 12.3 mkm2:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 May 14

In 2016 on the same day, the overall extent was much the same but there was more ice in the Chukchi and Bering Seas and less in the eastern Beaufort:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2016 May 14

More close-up charts of different regions below for 2018 vs. 2016, showing more detail.

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Low Bering Sea ice mostly due to south winds, no data on an impact for polar bears

Sea ice in the Bering Sea this winter was said to be the lowest since the 1850s, largely driven by persistent winds from the south rather than the usual north winds although warm Pacific water was a factor early in the season (AIRC 2018). But what, if any, impact is this surprisingly low winter and spring ice cover likely to have on Chukchi Sea polar bear health and survival?

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

In fact, research on Chukchi Sea polar bears has included so few examples of individuals utilizing the Bering Sea in winter (Jan-March) and early spring (April-May) that any conclusions regarding an impact from this year’s sea ice conditions are likely to be invalid. In short, we don’t know what will happen since it has not happened before within living memory; the opinions of polar bear specialists must be taken with a grain of salt because so many of their previous assumptions have turned out to be wrong (Crockford 2017a,b, 2018), see here, here, and here. Seals, walrus and polar bears are much more flexible and resilent to changes in habitat conditions than most modern biologists give them credit for and consequently, it will be fascinating to see how the ice will change over the coming months and how the animals will respond.

Sea ice extent 2018 March average NSIDC

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Polar bear habitat update early spring 2018

Spring in the Arctic is April-June (Pilfold et al. 2015). As late April is the peak of this critical spring feeding period for most polar bear populations, this is when sea ice conditions are also critical. This year, as has been true since 1979, that sea ice coverage is abundant across the Arctic for seals that are giving birth and mating at this time as well as for polar bears busy feeding on young seals and mating.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Alaska Katovik Regehr photo_April 29, 2005_sm labeled

Below is a chart of sea ice at 25 April 2018, showing sea ice in all PBSG polar bear subpopulation regions:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 April 25

Some Arctic subregions below, in detail. Continue reading

Breakup of sea ice on track in Canada as critical feeding period for polar bears ends

Relative to recent years and potential impacts on polar bear health and survival in Canada, there is nothing alarming in the pattern or speed of sea ice breakup for 2017, either over Hudson Bay, the southern Beaufort, or the eastern high Arctic.

Sea ice Canada 2017 June 8

Last year at this time (see map below), there was more open water in Hudson Bay and in the Southern Beaufort yet the polar bears came ashore in fine shape that summer and there was no hue-and-cry of dying bears anywhere. Breakup this year is on track to be about 3 weeks earlier than it was in the 1980s, as it has been since at least 2001, a conclusion reached by polar bear specialists (Castro de la Guardia et al. 2017; Lunn et al. 2016), who examined sea ice breakup to 2015.

Sea ice extent Canada 2016 June 8 CIS

Here are critical words to remember (more details here) from biologist Martin Obbard and colleagues (2016:29) on the relationship between body condition and sea ice for Southern Hudson Bay (SH) polar bears, which apply equally well to bears in other regions:

Date of freeze-up had a stronger influence on subsequent body condition than date of break-up in our study. Though models with date of freeze-up were supported over models with other ice covariates, we acknowledge that lower variability in freeze-up dates than in ice duration or break-up dates could have influenced the model selection process. Nevertheless, we suggest that a stronger effect of date of freeze-up may be because even though break-up has advanced by up to 3-4 weeks in portions of Hudson Bay it still occurs no earlier than late June or early July so does not yet interfere with opportunities to feed on neonate ringed seal pups that are born in March-April in eastern Hudson Bay (Chambellant 2010). Therefore, losing days or weeks of hunting opportunities during June and July deprives polar bears of the opportunity to feed on adult seals, but does not deprive them of the critical spring period (Watts and Hansen 1987) when they are truly hyperphagic. No doubt, the loss of hunting opportunities to kill adult seals has a negative effect on body condition, but it appears that for bears in SH a forced extension of the fast in late fall has a greater negative effect on subsequent body condition.” [my bold]

In other words, by mid-June at least (maybe earlier), polar bears have largely finished their intensive feeding that’s so critical to their survival over the rest of the year.

That’s why the latest count of SH polar bears (Obbard et al. 2015) showed a stable population (and see this recent post on WHB polar population estimates). But freeze-up was late last year and that’s what will make the difference to polar bears over the coming year.

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Svalbard polar bears thrive in part due to ringed seal pups in the spring pack ice

Few people know that Arctic ringed seals (Phoca hispida, aka Pusa hispida) give birth and breed in the offshore pack ice in the spring, as it is seldom mentioned by either seal or polar bear specialists.

While it is true that some ringed seals give birth in stable shorefast ice close to shore, many others give birth well offshore in thick pack ice – where polar bears also live and hunt in the spring but where few Arctic scientists ever venture – and the existence of pack ice breeding ringed seals is one of the reasons that polar bears are such a resilient species.


Ringed seal pup in a snow cave, B. Kelly photo (Wikipedia).

As a consequence, despite fears expressed by Ian Stirling, low shorefast ice and associated snow around Svalbard this winter (and any time in the past) is not necessarily a hindrance to polar bear survival because there are ringed seal pups available out in the surrounding pack ice – where bearded seals also give birth.

Of course, ringed seals pups are also available to Svalbard polar bears in the shorefast ice in the Franz Josef Land archipelago to the east (see map below) but it is the pups born in the offshore pack ice that are of interest here. The existence of pack ice breeding ringed seals may be why Norwegian biologists do not currently monitor ringed seals in the Barents Sea, despite many years of poor ice conditions around Svalbard in spring – this simply is not a species of concern.


The fact that distinct ringed seal ecotypes (or habitat-specific morphotypes) exist in the Arctic – one that gives birth and breeds in shorefast ice and another that gives birth and breeds in offshore pack ice, perhaps driven by competition for limited shorefast ice habitat – is a phenomenon a colleague and I discussed in a peer-reviewed book chapter published several years ago. Have a look at the excerpt below and see what you think.


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Polar bear habitat this fall shaping up fast – more like 2010 than 2007

Arctic sea ice tied 2007 for extent at the September minimum less than 3 weeks ago but with the refreeze proceeding much faster than 2007, seals will soon be returning to the ice edge and polar bears will be back to feeding like they did in 2010.


Sea ice extent less than 5.0 mkm2 lasted less than 6 weeks (23 August – 28 September), according to NSIDC.

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