Tag Archives: habitat

2016 record low maximum will make headlines but unlikely to affect polar bears

Never mind that the sea ice maximum this year came almost a month later than last year (and close to latest since 1979) – and was lower by only .02 – the US National Sea Ice Data Center (NSIDC) today trumpeted a new record low.  What this means to polar bears, if anything, remains to be seen.

Sea ice extent 2016 March 24 NSIDC_max 14_52mkm2 sm

2015: maximum set February 25 (day 56), at 14.54 mkm2

2016: maximum set March 24 (day 84), at 14.52 mkm2

[The difference in area? Smaller than the Islands of the Bahamas]

Latest maximum extent (since 1979) occurred in 2010 on April 2 (Day 92).

The average date for maximum extent is March 12.

I note, however, that given the lateness of the winter sea ice surge meant that the amount of ice present at 24 March 2016 (see NSIDC Interactive) was more than was present on the same date in 2006, 2007 and 2015.

Clearly, there was plenty enough sea ice in the spring of those years for most polar bears to hunt seals successfully and put on the weight they needed to survive the summer fast ahead. I see no reason to expect 2016 to be different.

Polar_Bear_male_Regehr photo_March 21 2010_labeled
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Polar bear survival: habitat 2013 vs. 2016 for 22 January

Using sea ice maps issued by the National Sea Ice Data Center (NSIDC), it’s interesting to compare these two years with respect to polar bear health and survival (keeping in mind that no polar bears live in what I like to call the armpits of the Arctic – the Sea of Okhotsk, the Baltic Sea or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence)1:

22 January 2016

Sea ice extent 2016 Jan 22 NSIDC

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Specialists mum on low Chukchi Sea polar bear habitat this summer and fall

You may or may not have noticed that even though Chukchi Sea ice coverage has been way below average this melt season, there has been no hue-and-cry about poor suffering Chukchi polar bears. That’s because polar bear biologist’s own research has shown that the health and survival of these bears has not been negatively impacted by low summer sea ice. There may be threats from poaching in Russia, but not lack of summer sea ice.

Chukchi vs Beaufort ice at 29 Oct 2015_polarbearscience

As of this date, developing sea ice is only just approaching Wrangel Island, a major polar bear denning region in the Chukchi Sea, see maps below (Ovsyanikov 2006).

Yet, polar bear specialists insist that neighbouring Beaufort Sea bears – who endure a much shorter open-water season – are in peril of extinction because of scarce summer sea ice.
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Hudson Bay freeze-up moving faster than recent years, WHB polar bear habitat imminent

There may not be ice for Western Hudson Bay polar bears to walk on yet but there is still more ice forming along the northwest shore of the bay than last year at this time or even the year before. The Canadian Ice Service (CIS) map for 5 November shows this early formation.

Canadian Arctic Nov 5 2015_CIS

What’s present is mostly grey ice defined by CIS as:

“Young ice 10-15 cm thick, less elastic than nilas [a kind of new ice] and breaks on swell. It usually rafts under pressure.”

Polar bears generally need ice about 30 cm thick to support their weight, which could take a day or two – or a week or two, depending on the weather in northwestern Hudson Bay. For Churchill, along the central coast of western Hudson Bay, ice thick enough for walking will not likely be far behind, given the long-range forecast of freezing weather. In recent years, most Churchill polar bears have left the ice by around 20 November. More maps and graphs for this week below.
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2015 may be the earliest in many years that W. Hudson Bay polar bears head for the sea ice

Great news for Western Hudson Bay polar bears! Following up from sea ice conditions last week, CIS maps show ice forming all along western Hudson Bay – not a huge amount, but the beginning of the end of the ice-free season, which recently has not occurred until mid-November (Cherry et al. 2013).

Canadian Arctic Oct 29 2015_CIS

There is above-average sea ice coverage in Foxe Basin and Davis Strait, and only slightly below average coverage in the Beaufort Sea (see graphs below). Polar bear habitat is shaping up very nicely indeed across Canada and the US this year.
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Beaufort Sea polar bear habitat highest since 2008 at this date

Good news for Southern Beaufort polar bears! Sea ice converging on the north shore of Alaska earlier than any year since 2011 at least, according to NSIDCs regional ice plots (below).

r01_Beaufort_Sea_ts_4km

But wait, their Masie ice maps show it’s actually the earliest since 2008 (although the ice movement onshore was also earlier than 2006 and 2007, see below). And it’s still a full week before the end of October, the first month of Arctic fall (October-December). Lot’s of seal hunting habitat.

This emphasizes the fact that the primary problem faced by Southern Beaufort sea polar bears is not scarce summer ice but by thick sea ice conditions in the spring. Bears photographed near Kaktovik this year were in excellent condition (see here and here, taken by Kelsey Eliasson, Polar Bear Alley). If folks have been seeing starving bears, they haven’t said anything that I’ve been able to find.

Ice maps below.
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Winter returns to the Arctic – freeze-up 2015 at October 20 expands polar bear habitat

Fall is the season when polar bears that have spent the summer fasting can return to the refreezing sea ice to resume successful hunting. For polar bears, fall is the second-most important time of year for hunting, after spring.

masie_all_zoom_4km_2015 Oct 20

The date when freeze-up occurs across the Arctic varies from place to place and year to year, but the process is well underway this year. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center’s MASIE map for 20 October 2015 (above) shows 7.7 mkm2 of sea ice, up from the annual low of 4.41 mkm2 almost 6 weeks ago.

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Sea ice is not a stable habitat for polar bears – summarized today in The Arctic Journal

In The Arctic Journal, 7 October 2015: Unstable thinking about polar bear habitat [not my title choice]

Unstable thinking about polar bear habitat_Oct 7 2015 title page

This is a previously unpublished summary, written exclusively for The Arctic Journal, of my peer-reviewed, fully referenced essay on this topic that was published earlier this year by the Global Warming Policy Foundation in their “Briefing Paper” series (#16, June 8, 2015: The Arctic Fallacy: Sea Ice Stability and the Polar Bear), which includes a foreword by Dr. Matthew Cronin, Professor of Animal Genetics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pdf here.

Here are the essential points, one by one:
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September minimum 2015 looks like the earliest end of Arctic melt season since 2007

Polar bear habitat in the Arctic Basin this year appears to have reached its apex days earlier than average. As of 12 September, freeze-up of Arctic sea ice had begun. Unless something dramatic happens over the next few days, this will make 2015 the earliest September minimum since at least 2007, using NSIDC data.1

masie_all_zoom_v01_2015252_4km

The two lowest September ice extents (2007 and 2012) were also both later than average; this year’s minimum is the fourth lowest (see chart below).

Of course, all this fuss about how low the September minimum gets is irrelevant to polar bears: they are either on land or in the Arctic Basin, and virtually all are living off stored fat no matter where they are (see Arctic Basin bear here). What matters is when the refrozen ice reaches pregnant females that have preferred denning spots onshore (like in Svalbard) or for bears onshore waiting to return to the ice to hunt (like Davis Strait, and Western and Southern Hudson Bay bears). We won’t know that until October (for Svalbard) or November (for E. Canada).

Again, no sea ice death spiral or polar bears in peril because of it.

UPDATE 15 September 2015, 11:00 am PDT: Just published at the NSIDC website, 2015 minimum has been (tentatively) called at 4.41 mkm2, confirming my figure taken from their interactive graph (see below). However, despite the fact that their own data show that sea ice extent stayed at that value for three days, NSIDC has chosen the last day of that 3-day period rather than the first to represent the 2015 minimum. Go figure. That makes 2015 tied with 2011 for the earliest date for their official records, which seems more than a little self-serving and means I’m not changing the title of my post. NSIDC have also modified slightly some of the official extent figures for past minimums (added below) but it doesn’t really change anything.
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Summer habitat for most polar bears is either shoreline or sea ice in the Arctic Basin

At this time of year, sea ice extent numbers are meaningless for polar bears.  The extreme low September minimum of 2012 – when masses of polar bears didn’t die – showed rational people that this is true. Even the low 2007 summer extent, which hit earlier in the season than 2012, had little to no negative impact.

Greenland W coast_Female w cubs_2006_Mads Heide-Jorgensen_NOAA sm

In late summer, bears outside the Canadian Archipelago either retreat to shore or stay on the sea ice as it retreats north into the Arctic Basin (see image below, click to enlarge).  Most bears in the Archipelago have ice year round, so life doesn’t change much. This means that it does not matter to polar bears how much area the Arctic Basin ice covers in September – for their needs, 1.0 mkm2 would be plenty.

Sea ice and summer refuges for polar bears_17 Aug 2015

Still, Southern Hudson Bay polar bears had extended hunting opportunities in July this year (whether or not they hunted successfully) and for this date, Hudson Bay had more ice remaining than any year on record. Yes, more than even 1992 but only by a few percent. See charts and maps below.

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