Tag Archives: icebreaker

Polar bear spotted on Bear Island (Barents Sea) this winter for the first time in 8 years

A polar bear was spotted this year on Bear Island (Bjørnøya) in the southern Barents Sea on 8 March by the crew at the Meteorological Station. The last time these workers had seen a polar bear was 2011 but this year extensive Barents Sea ice literally brought a bear to their doorstep, similar to the way that sea ice brings bears to southern Labrador and Newfoundland in late winter and spring.

Bear island 8 March 2019_first bear seen by Meteorological Institute station crews since 2011_Bjørnøya Meteorological Station photo

After below-average ice cover around Svalbard for most of the winter months of January and February, by early March the ice had expanded so far to the south it reached Bjørnøya. It was the kind of ice that hadn’t been seen in decades and almost immediately, a polar bear was spotted on shore. Given the length of time that the ice surrounding the island persisted, it is likely more bears came ashore but were not seen: the Meteorological Station at the north end of the island is the only place that people live over the winter (see maps below).

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Shockingly thick first year ice between Barents Sea and the North Pole in mid-July

In late June, one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world encountered such extraordinarily thick ice on-route to the North Pole (with a polar bear specialist and deep-pocketed, Attenborough-class tourists onboard) that it took a day and a half longer than expected to get there. A few weeks later, in mid-July, a Norwegian icebreaker also bound for the North Pole (with scientific researchers on board) was forced to turn back north of Svalbard when it unexpectedly encountered impenetrable pack ice.

Franz Josef Land polar bear 2019 no date_Photo by Michael Hambrey_sm

A polar bear on hummocked sea ice in Franz Josef Land. Photo by Michael Hambrey, date not specified but estimated based on tour dates to be 22 or 23 June 2019.

Apparently, the ice charts the Norwegian captain consulted showed first year ice – ice that formed the previous fall, defined as less than 2 m thick (6.6 ft) – which is often much broken up by early summer. However, what he and his Russian colleague came up against was consolidated first year pack ice up to 3 m thick (about 10 ft). Such thick first year ice was not just unexpected but by definition, should have been impossible.

Ice charts for the last few years that estimate actual ice thickness (rather than age) show ice >2 m thick east and/or just north of Svalbard and around the North Poie is not unusual at this time of year.  This suggests that the propensity of navigational charts to use ice ‘age’ (e.g. first year vs. multi-year) to describe ice conditions could explain the Norwegian captain getting caught off-guard by exceptionally thick first year ice. It also provides an explanation for why the polar bear specialist onboard the Russian icebreaker later failed to explain that first year ice of such shocking thickness was truly extraordinary, not just a bit thicker than usual.

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Hudson Bay, Davis Strait and Foxe Basin sea ice highest since 1992

We are seeing one of the extremes in Hudson Bay sea ice variability this year, not only in extent but in distribution of ice. Ice coverage on Hudson Bay this year at 28 July was twice what it was in 2009, the last “late” ice breakup year for which detailed ice maps are available (409 vs. 204 thousand km2), according to NSIDC MASIE ice maps. Canadian Ice Service data show 2015 coverage for the week of 30 July was the highest since 1992.

Churchill_Polar_Bear_2004-11-15 Wikipedia

The odd pattern of ice distribution presents a conundrum. Have a look at the maps and graphs below.

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Researcher says most S. Hudson Bay polar bears still on the ice, may have to swim home

More than half of Southern Hudson Bay polar bears under study are still out on the thick Hudson Bay sea ice that’s been giving Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers so much trouble.

Figure 6. James Bay polar bear female and her cub during the ice-free period. Notice how fat they both are. Courtesy Ministry of Natural Resources, News Ontario, June 2, 2009.

James Bay polar bear female and her cub on shore. Courtesy Ministry of Natural Resources, News Ontario, June 2, 2009.

As I pointed out a few days ago, most of the ice remaining on Hudson Bay is in the region used by Southern Hudson Bay polar bears. While you wouldn’t know it from the Polar Bears International “Bear Tracker” – which hasn’t been updated since 2 July – on Friday (24 July 2015) Ontario polar bear researcher Martyn Obbard used the PBI website to reveal where his study sample of polar bears are located.

Obbard posted a little essay on PBI’s “Save our sea ice!” website which had, buried near the end, the admission that on 20 July, five out of his nine Southern Hudson Bay females with satellite radio collars were still out on the ice, “far from the Ontario coast.
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