What a difference a bit of historical perspective can make to one’s attitude on the annual Arctic sea ice breakup.
The usual recent pattern (since 1979) has been for breakup to begin on the east side. However, this year and last (below), it has begun in the NW (as it did in 1990 and a few other years).
Not all of the open water is due to melt, of course. As I discussed last week in relation to the Southern Beaufort Sea, winds and prevailing currents at this time of year start to fracture the ice and move it around well before much significant melt has begun.
Compare 2016 (above) to 2006 (below), when there was 0.1 mkm2 less overall – with much less ice in Hudson Strait and in the east of Hudson Bay than this year:
Compare to 2011, when there was also 0.1 mkm2 less overall than this year:
It’s important to keep in mind that the intensive feeding season for polar bears is drawing to a close – within another two weeks, most young-of-the-year seals will be in the water feeding and inaccessible to bears.
The only seals on the ice during June and July are predator-savvy adults and subadults that have hauled out to moult and for these seals the rapidly disintegrating ice creates many escape routes. That means that as long as the ice breakup sequence allows polar bears to get their fill of young seals before the end of May, even during early breakup years most bears should be fat enough to survive the coming summer and winter fasts (see more here). So we should expect to see some bears coming ashore within the next two weeks.
Recent media hype over swimming polar bears in the Southern Beaufort has been quite spectacular (still going strong today at the Washington Post here) but a close look at relevant data shows the message is bogus. Researchers admit (in their methods section) they couldn’t tell if bears said to have swum “non-stop” actually hauled out for half a day or more to rest on small ice flows invisible to satellites and astonishingly, the bear getting all the media attention – who swam the longest of any bear – lost less weight than a bear would have done simply sitting on shore for the same length of time.
Posted in Advocacy, Conservation Status, Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Beaufort Sea, claims, facts, Hudson Bay, longest swim, media hype, melting ice, misinformation, non-stop swims, polar bear, sea ice, swimming, weight loss, without rest
You may have seen the headlines in Canadian news outlets over the last 2 days.
“Polar bears swimming farther as sea ice recedes, study shows”
“Melting sea ice forces polar bears to swim longer, farther: study” [“Bear biologist Andrew Derocher says the forced swims are particularly hard on mothers with young cubs”]
“Polar bears swimming longer, farther because of melting sea ice, study finds”
Oddly, none of the above news reports said where the paper was published or mentioned the name of the lead author – only University of Alberta co-author Andrew Derocher was interviewed (see the only press release I could find here, issued by the San Diego Zoo where the lead author is now employed).[update: CBC ran another story a day later that corrected these omissions]
But what did the study actually say?
Significantly, no bears died while swimming during the two lowest sea ice extent summers since 1979 and no evidence was presented that swims were “particularly hard on mothers with young cubs.” The quotes from the paper below sum it up for Beaufort Sea (BS) bears (the inclusion of Hudson Bay (HB) bears in this study seems gratuitous and potentially misleading, since only a few swam anyway – only 15 out of 59):
“….91% (91/100) of the swims in the BS occurred before the annual September minimum sea ice extent had been reached. …In the BS, 81% (29/36) of swims started and ended in pack ice…”
So, despite what may be implied during media moments, Beaufort Sea polar bears were not frantically trying to reach the sea ice from land so that they could attempt to keep feeding over the summer – most of their swimming was done during breakup in July and August from one bit of pack ice to another and they showed no evidence of harm from doing so. Map from the study and more quotes below.
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Beaufort, Derocher, forced swims, Hudson Bay, mothers with young cubs, Pilfold, polar bear, receding sea ice, sea ice, summer, swim longer, swimming, swimming further
Sea ice development over Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, and Davis Strait has been rather unusual this year but what that might mean for polar bears over the coming winter and spring is hard to tell.
Note: The Canadian Ice Service seems to be in the process of updating its sea ice page and graphing features that used to be available weekly on Thursday have not been available until the following week. This means the most recent graphs available are for the week of 11 December (see below).
Posted in Sea ice habitat
Tagged 1992, Davis Strait, El Nino, Foxe Basin, freeze-up, heavy sea ice, Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, polar bear, polar bear facts, sea ice, western hudson bay
It’s just past the height of fall in the Arctic (Oct-Dec) and polar bear habitat is expanding day by day: according to NSIDC Masie ice charts, the ice has now surpassed 11 mkm2 in extent. Fall is the second most important feeding period for polar bears after spring.
Only the Barents and Kara Seas (north of Norway and western Russia) are short of ice right now, similar to conditions seen in the fall of 2013. Last fall (2014), conditions were much better and as a consequence, researchers saw a lot of females with healthy cubs in the spring of 2015.
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged AMO, Barents Sea, Davis Strait, denning, fall feeding, Hudson Bay, polar bear, pregnant females, sea ice, spring feeding
Arctic refreeze is well underway. Less than half way through the Arctic autumn (Oct-Dec), polar bear habitat on 11 November 2015 covered the same total area as it did on the last day of Arctic spring (April-June); it’s just distributed differently.
Yesterday, courtesy NSIDC Masie
Here is what 30 June 2015 ice extent looked like, with the same amount of ice coverage:
For the week of 12 November, Hudson Bay sea ice development is well underway, with more ice in the north than there has been in many years; Davis Strait ice is the highest this week since 1999 and Baffin Bay ice coverage is above average. Foxe Basin and the Beaufort Sea are both approaching maximum coverage, which means bears there will be back out on the ice hunting. Chukchi Sea ice has finally surrounded Wrangel Island but the Svalbard Archipelago in the Barents Sea is still ice-free. More ice maps and charts below.
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.
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.