Tag Archives: Hudson Bay

Polar bear habitat update for end July 2021 compared to previous years

Here’s a trip down memory lane for Arctic sea ice at the end of July, which as far as I can see provides no evidence that a very low sea ice disaster is in the cards for polar bears this year.

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Western Hudson Bay polar bears: still some out on the sea ice, some causing trouble

As of Monday (19 July), more polar bears had come ashore near Churchill and on the shores of Wakusp National Park but some are still out on the bay. The pattern of ice breakup this year means most bears will come ashore well south of Churchill and make their way north over the summer and fall. There have been two Churchill ‘problem’ bear reports so far but not one for this week, so I’ll go ahead and post without it.

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Polar bear habitat update and the progress of breakup on Hudson Bay

At mid-month, there is still an abundance of thick first year ice over much of Hudson Bay, suggesting that – yet again – this will not be an early breakup year for Western Hudson Bay polar bears. The early breakup years in the past (like 2010) that generated all kinds of panic amongst polar bear specialists have not developed into ever-continuing declining trend (Lunn et al. 2016) or another abrupt step-change like there was in 1998/99 (Castro de la Guardia et al. 2017).

In the last few years conditions have been more like they were in the 1980s than the prophesied catastrophe we were promised. I don’t see a ‘tipping point’ for Hudson Bay; do you see a tipping point?

The more light green areas of thinner ice present, as there was in 2010 (below), the earlier breakup is apt to be:

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The conundrum of Hudson Bay bears that left shore late in 1983 with video from CBC archives

In 1983, it was claimed that freeze-up of Hudson Bay was so late that polar bears didn’t leave the shore until the 4th of December – several weeks later than had been usual at that time. However, the fact that sea ice charts show significant ice offshore weeks before that time suggests something else was probably going on.

About three weeks ago, CBC News republished an article (with video) from their 1983 archives for 1 December, about the plight of the people of Churchill who had already suffered one death and one serious mauling by polar bears. That was thirty-seven years ago, long before lack of sea ice was blamed for everything bad that happened to Western Hudson Bay polar bears. In fact, rather than a really late freeze-up, it appears the problem had more to do with the fact the bears had had an especially tough spring that year and arrived onshore in only ‘OK’ condition – and as a consequence, the town dump became such a strong attractant for many bears that they were reluctant to leave when the sea ice formed offshore.

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Polar bear habitat update for late November

Sea ice formation is ahead of usual in some regions and behind in others but overall, sea ice habitat is abundant enough for this time of year for virtually all polar bears across the Arctic to be back out on the sea ice hunting seals.

Overall, there was more sea ice at 24 November 2020 than there was on the same date in 2016, which was the last year that a number of polar bear subpopulations were surveyed, including Western and Southern Hudson Bay, Southern Beaufort, Chukchi Sea (Crockford 2019, 2020), see graph below from NSIDC Masie:

Northern Hemisphere sea ice at 24 November, 2016-2020.

UPDATE 27 November 2020: Problem bear report published today (for week 13, Nov. 16-22) has been added below.

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Strange sea ice pattern over Hudson Bay as winds blow polar bears offshore

Winds blew a huge mass of new shorefast sea ice way out into Western Hudson Bay a few days ago (13 November) and very likely took some polar bears with it. This offshore wind phenomenon is common at this time of year – it happened in 2017 – and is often part of the yearly ‘freeze-up’ process for sea ice. But the extent of ice and the distance blown offshore in Hudson Bay this year is impressive.

In previous years, this has happened very early in the freeze-up sequence, well before the ice was thick enough to support polar bears. This year is different: freeze-up was early (starting in late October) and the ice was thick enough off Western Hudson Bay to support bears hunting successfully for seals by the last day of October. By 7 November, most bears had left for the ice, with only a few stragglers left behind – since they were all in good condition due to a late breakup of the ice this summer, there were remarkably few problem with bears in Churchill and some seemed in no hurry to leave once the shorefast ice started to form.

It’s doubtful that any bears out on that wind-blown ice are in any kind of peril. As long as the ice is thick enough to support their weight, they should be fine – and keeping themselves busy catching seals.

The chart above is from NSIDC Masie for 15 November 2020 (Day 320) – it showed the same large offshore patch of ice the day before. However, only today did the Canadian Ice Service (CIS) chart show even part of the offshore patch (below):

In this case, I’m trusting the Masie chart because it seems the CIS sensors aren’t yet set to pick up ice that’s far offshore, as the detailed stage of development chart for 16 November (below) shows (grey-white ice is 15-30 cm thick, grey ice is 10-15 cm, but see discussion below):

However, after I’d almost given up that we’d hear from Andrew Derocher about his polar bears with still-functioning collars, he posted a tracking map late today (below). Even his chart shows that big patch of offshore ice but he didn’t comment on it at all. It appears that of the 9 collars he deployed on females last year only one is on the ice, well offshore (north of Churchill).

Derocher is still claiming that this is not an early freeze-up year even though it’s clear many bears have already left for the ice and only a few stragglers remain, including most of his collared bears. However, some of his bears are probably pregnant (especially the two furthest inland) and won’t be going anywhere this fall. And we already know that many of Derocher’s collared bears were very late to come onshore in August and having only spent 3 months onshore rather than 4 or 5 months they are used to, may now be in no hurry to leave – especially since they know that seals are to be had out on that ‘very thin’ ice just offshore.

Unfortunately, the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill decided not to issue a report for the first week in November (2-8 Nov), so there is no information on the progress of freeze-up and polar bear movements from that authority. There might be one issued tomorrow for the second week (9-15 Nov), if so I’ll post it here.

It’s important to know that even big male bears only need ice that’s about 30 cm thick to hold their weight. And while the newly formed grey ice is technically only 10-15 cm (see the stage of development chart above), the ice offshore this year is very compressed and buckled (see below from 7 November), making it thicker than it might appear on the official ice charts.

 

Western & Southern Hudson Bay polar bears experience earliest freeze-up in decades

This is shaping up to be one of the shortest ice-free seasons in at least 20 years for both Western and Southern Hudson Bay polar bears.

Hudson Bay sea ice at 2 November 2020. NSIDC Masie chart.

Last week, sea ice started forming along the shore of Hudson Bay, from the north end all the way south into James Bay. So far, the shorefast ice that’s forming is only a narrow strip along the coast but is thickening and becoming broader each day, which means that unless something changes dramatically, the bears should all be on the ice at the end of the week, an exodus from shore that hasn’t happened this early in WH since 1993 (the earliest since 1979).

The last WH tagged polar bear didn’t leave the ice this year until 21 August, which means if it’s on the ice by the end of this week it will have spent only 11 weeks onshore – less than 3 months. Even the first bears that came ashore in mid-July will have only spent about 16 weeks on land – at least a month less than they did a decade ago (Stirling and Derocher 2012). Four months spent ashore was the historical average for Western Hudson Bay bears in the 1970s and 1980s (Stirling et al. 1977, 1999). This year, most polar bears will have spent only about 13-14 weeks on land because they did not come ashore until early August.

UPDATE 8 November 2020: Report from Churchill area polar bear guide Kelsey Eliasson, via Facebook Saturday 7 November: “Most bears have left on the ice – including peanut – but still some stragglers” [Peanut’ is a well-known female who has two cubs this year]. See below for sea ice chart for 8 November shows broadening band of grey ice clearly thick enough to support the weight of adult bears (and the same thing is happening in Southern Hudson Bay):

Hudson Bay North daily stage of development 2020 Nov 8_all grey ice

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Polar bear research on hold in Western Hudson Bay due to COVID-19 restrictions

After spring polar bear research was cancelled in Western Hudson Bay (and pretty much everywhere else) this year because of Covid 19 concerns, it now transpires that fall research is out as well. Travel restrictions implemented by government departments and university administrations (not the health department) apparently mean fall programs to assess the health and status of polar bears in Western Hudson Bay have been put on hold.

Triplet litter of polar bear cubs spotted in Wakusp National Park, Western Hudson Bay. 23 October 2020. Courtesy Explore.org.

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Some surprises in polar bear sea ice habitat at mid-October 2020

Arctic sea ice has been growing steadily since the minimum extent was reached a month ago, with shorefast ice now developing along the Russian and Alaskan coastlines as ice cover expands in the Central Canadian Arctic. So while it’s true that the main pack of Arctic ice is far from the Russian shoreline, rapidly developing shorefast ice will allow bears to begin hunting seals long before ice in the central Arctic Basin reaches the Siberian shore, as they do in Western and Southern Hudson Bay every fall.

Cropped sea ice extent at 15 October 2020 (Day 289), NSIDC Masie.

And speaking of Western Hudson Bay, it’s a very slow season around Churchill for problem polar bears (photo below) – the quietest mid-October for the Polar Bear Alert Program in the last five years and perhaps the quietest in decades (which I could say for sure if I had the records but I do not).

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Amid crying over low Arctic ice, W Hudson Bay polar bears leave ice as late as 2009

This year, the last collared Western Hudson Bay polar bear to leave the ice left as late, or later, than the last collared bear did in 2009 (which was an unusually late breakup year) and so far, all bears spotted have been in good physical condition despite inhabiting one of the most southern regions of the Arctic. All the while, sea ice experts have been hand-wringing about low Arctic sea ice –– in general and as polar bear habitat.

Polar bear Cape East 0 Wakusp NP _24 Aug 2020 earlier

A female with two yearling cubs on the shore of Wakusp National Park, Western Hudson Bay on 24 August 2020. Taken via livecam from almost a mile away.

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