Tag Archives: Mauritzen

Polar bears move around as sea ice habitat changes – this is what resilience looks like

Oddly, it seems some people expect polar bears to sit around and suffer (or die) when local conditions deteriorate, rather than move elsewhere.

PolarBear_2008_USGS

While there are perhaps a few places where moving is not really an option over the short term, over the long term (more than one season) polar bears are free to shift to another locale if ice conditions change (either too much ice or too little).

An announcement by the WWF last week (10 April) caught my eye, as it talked about bears moving from one area to another because of changing ice conditions — as if this was surprising, extraordinary and newsworthy. That said, at least they weren’t suggesting the bears are all going to die because of declining ice, which is a huge improvement.

See what you think of this part of the press release (below), in the context of what we know about the movement of bears between regions:

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Barents Sea polar bear status and sea ice declines

So far, I’ve not discussed the Barents Sea subpopulation in very much detail, except in comparison to other groups. For example, the Barents is considered to be the same type of sea ice “ecoregion” as the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort (discussed here). Previous studies on the Barents Sea polar bear population (Derocher 2005) indicate it may have recovered from extreme levels of overhunting (discussed here) and had stabilized, or was increasing very slowly, as early as 2002 (discussed here) — similar to what has happened in Davis Strait (discussed here).

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations, with the Barents Sea region highlighted; map courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), extra labels added.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations, with the Barents Sea region highlighted; map courtesy the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), extra labels added.

The most recent Barents Sea population estimate was done in 2004 (2,650; range ~1900-3600), based on an aerial survey (Aars et al. 2009). Aerial surveys are the only practical method of establishing population counts in regions like this where many bears never set foot on land. The previous estimate for the Barents (1982) was “2,000-5,000” but its accuracy was considered “poor” (discussed here).

The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), in their most recent report, lists the Barents Sea population as “data deficient” for status, current trend and estimated risk of decline within 10 years (Obbard et al. 2010:62, Table 1) and the “notes” for this entry say:

Population estimate is based on a new aerial survey. There was likely an increase in the subpopulation size after 1973 until recently. Current growth trend is unknown.

This 2004 estimate is now almost a decade old and potentially no longer an accurate representation of what’s happening in the Barents Sea. The most up-to-date information has not yet been published but it is available online. It’s eye-opening to say the least, if only that it appears to be yet another example of a polar bear population that is so far not showing signs of being harmed by sea ice declines, as I’ve discussed before (here).

[Update October 15, 2013: I’ve simplified the text discussion and figure regarding the Aars and Andersen denning study from the original posted]

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Record low sea ice extent and what it means for polar bears…

On Aug. 27, 2012 sea ice extent dipped below the yearly minimum extent reached in 2007.

The sea ice at this point, a five-day average, was 4.1 million km squared and the lowest point reached since satellite records began in 1979. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) thought it was important enough to issue a press release.

There are sure to be more than a few media-hungry folks who will be moaning about the fate of the poor polar bears because of this report. Before people get too hysterical, a bit of rational perspective might be helpful.

Keep in mind that 4.1 m sq. km (Fig. 5) is about the size of Greenland (2.166 m km2) plus Mexico (1.972 m km2), or about the size of India (3.287 m km2) plus Pakistan (0.809 m km2), figures from Wikipedia.

It may be a ‘record’ low, but it’s still a lot of ice: 4.1 m km2 is not anywhere close to an ‘ice-free’ Arctic!

Arctic sea ice melts – or gets pushed out of the Arctic and then melts – every year, leaving various amounts behind. The ice lingering at mid-September adds to next year’s ‘multiyear’ ice.

The maximum extent is usually reached mid-to-late March. Have a look at how this ‘low extent’ developed from the March maximum this year. Even if you’ve looked at some of these maps, you may not have looked at them one after the other. I’ll compare these to the fall maps for 2007, after the Sept. minimum and discuss these in relation to polar bear habitat. Contineu reading