Tag Archives: last glacial maximum

Abrupt summer sea ice decline has not affected polar bear numbers as predicted

Yes, Arctic sea ice has declined since satellite records began in 1979 but polar bears have adjusted well to this change, especially to the abrupt decline to low summer sea ice levels that have been the norm since 2007.

Global pb population size sea ice 2017 July PolarBearScience

Some polar bear subpopulations have indeed spent more time on land in summer than in previous decades but this had little negative impact on health or survival and while polar bear attacks on humans appear to have increased in recent years (Wilder et al. 2017), the reasons for this are not clear: reduced summer sea ice is almost certainly not the causal factor (see previous post here).

Ultimately, there is little reason to accept as plausible the computer models (e.g. Atwood et al. 2016; Regehr et al. 2016) that suggest polar bear numbers will decline by 30% or more within a few decades: even the IUCN Red List assessment (Wiig et al. 2015) determined the probability of that happening was only 70%.

Arctic sea ice has never been a stable living platform (Crockford 2015): it shifts from season to season, year to year, and millennia to millennia. Without the ability to adapt to changing conditions, Arctic species like polar bears and their prey species (seals, walrus, beluga, narwhal) would not have survived the unimaginably extreme changes in ice extent and thickness that have occurred over the last 30,000 years, let alone the extremes of sea ice they endured in the last 200,000 years or so.

Some biologists continue to hawk doomsday scenarios for polar bears due to summer sea ice loss but the truth is that their previous predictions based on sea ice declines failed so miserably (e.g. Amstrup et al. 2007) that it’s impossible to take the new ones seriously — especially since the basic assumptions that caused the first predictions to fail have not been corrected, as I’ve stated in print (Crockford 2017:27):

In summary, recent research has shown that most bears are capable of surviving a summer fast of five months or so as long as they have fed sufficiently from late winter through spring, which appears to have taken place since 2007 despite marked declines in summer sea ice extent.

The assumption that summer sea ice is critical feeding habitat for polar bears is not supported.

Recent research shows that changes in summer ice extent generally matter much less than assumed in predictive polar bear survival models of the early 2000s as well as in recent models devised to replace them (Amstrup et al. 2010; Atwood et al. 2016a; Regehr et al. 2015; Regeher et al. 2016; Wiig et al. 2015), while variations in spring ice conditions matter more.

As a consequence, the evidence to date suggests that even if an ‘ice-free’ summer occurs sometime in the future ­ defined as sea ice extent of 1 million km2 or less (Jahn et al. 2016) ­ it is unlikely to have a devastating impact on polar bears or their prey. [my bold]

The abrupt drop in summer sea ice that occurred in 2007 was not predicted by experts to occur until mid-century yet the predicted decimation of polar bears worldwide expected under those conditions (a loss of 2/3 of the global total, to only about 6660-8325 bears) not only did not happen, it did not come even close to happening (Crockford 2017; see also my recent books, Polar Bear Facts & Myths, and Polar Bears: Outstanding Survivors of Climate Change, sidebar).

Instead, the global population grew from about 22,550 bears in 2005 to about 28,500 bears in 2015. And while this might not be a statistically significant increase (due to the very wide margins of error for polar bear estimates), it is absolutely not a decline.

The present reality is that low summer sea ice cover since 2007 has not caused polar bear numbers to decline and therefore, polar bears are not a species in trouble. This suggests that even if the Arctic should become briefly ice-free in summer in the future, polar bears are likely to be only minimally affected and not become threatened with extinction. Polar bears are outstanding survivors of climate change: recent research and their evolutionary history confirm this to be true.

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Arctic sea ice grows & Churchill polar bears into their 4th month of fasting

A quiet year for problems in the polar bear capital of the world (Churchill, Manitoba) so far – despite this year tying for the second-lowest minimum since 1979 – and the ice is growing fast. In fact, Arctic ice growth in the second half of September was rapid and there is now more ice than there was at this date in 2007 and 2012 (when polar bears in those regions considered most at risk did not die off in droves).


Pessimistic polar bear specialists are wrong  – polar bears are much more resilient to low sea ice levels in summer than they assume: their own data from low summer ice years proves it.  If you’ll recall from my previous post, polar bears seem to have barely survived the extensive sea ice coverage during the Last Glacial Maximum – in other words, too much ice (even over the short term) is their biggest threat. Polar bear numbers, as confirmed by the latest estimates in the 2015 IUCN Red List assessment, are higher now than they have been since the 1960s, despite almost 10 years of summer sea ice minimums below 5.0 mk2.

Churchill Polar Bear Alert reports and Arctic sea ice comparisons at this date, in detail below.

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Polar bears barely survived the sea ice habitat changes of the last Ice Age, evidence suggests

While the polar bear is an Ice Age species, genetic and fossil evidence suggests it barely survived the profound sea ice changes associated with the Last Glacial Maximum, one of the most severe glacial periods of the Pleistocene.

polar_bear_usfws_no date_sm

A map of sea ice extent at the climax of the Last Glacial Maximum (both perennial and seasonal ice), prepared with the help of a colleague, makes it possible to discuss what genetic and fossil evidence can tell us about the probable effects of glacial conditions on polar bears and ringed seals.

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Polar bears cavorting with ABC brown bears not supported by geological and fossil evidence

The authors of a new paper out in PLoS Genetics (Cahill et al. 2013, entitled “Genomic Evidence for Island Population Conversion Resolves Conflicting Theories of Polar Bear Evolution”) propose to explain how and why the brown bears (aka grizzlies) of the ABC islands of southeast Alaska (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof – see previous post here), got to be so genetically distinct from brown bears on the Alaska mainland and so surprisingly similar (genetically) to polar bears. The authors determined (using a model) that this genetic pattern could be explained by an ancient hybridization event resulting from female polar bears cavorting with male brown bears in SE Alaska.

I had some issues with the way the paper was promoted by some of the co-authors, which I dealt with separately here. More importantly, I found the scenario these geneticists offered to explain how hybridization might have occurred to be patently implausible. Geological and fossil evidence from SE Alaska largely refutes their scenario, although another explanation may be more tenable. It is not impossible, in my opinion, that hybridization occurred in SE Alaska during the last Ice Age, but if it did, it almost certainly did not happen the way Cahill and colleagues suggest.

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How long have polar bears lived in Hudson Bay?

The unique geographical postion and oceanographic properties of Hudson Bay make it very different from other Arctic regions that polar bears inhabit.

Hudson Bay is a large shallow basin that freezes over every winter – somewhat like an enormous salt-water lake. This ice cover melts completely every summer, in part because it is well south of other truly “arctic” regions. As a consequence, while Hudson Bay offers excellent seal-hunting conditions for polar bears from winter through early summer, the long ice-free period with no or few feeding opportunities presents a unique challenge that polar bears elsewhere do not routinely encounter (see previous posts here, here and here).

Modern polar bears on the sea ice of Hudson Bay (Wikipedia photo and map).

But Hudson Bay also has a unique geological history. Since the end of the last ice age Hudson Bay has been available as polar bear habitat about half as long as other Arctic regions. This phenomenon is rarely discussed in the polar bear literature (although Andrew Derocher, in his new book [reviewed here] does mention it). In this post, I’ll summarize the geological history of Hudson Bay over the last 30 thousand years, as it pertains to polar bear habitat.

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