Arctic sea ice begins to open up in spring at predictable locations due to currents and prevailing winds and this was as true in the 1970s as it is today. Polynyas and widening shore leads that most often get mistaken for early sea ice melt are those in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and in Hudson Bay.
But contrary to concerns expressed about possible negative implications of these early patches of open water, these areas have always been critical congregation areas for Arctic seals and are therefore important feeding areas for polar bears.
Seals hauled out beside a lightly frozen over lead in Beaufort Sea ice, 2008. USFWS.
Posted in Conservation Status, Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Beaufort, Chukchi Sea, Hudson Bay, ice cover, melt, open water, polar bear, polynya, sea ice, seals, shore leads, winds
Polar bear habitat in the Arctic Basin this year appears to have reached its apex days earlier than average. As of 12 September, freeze-up of Arctic sea ice had begun. Unless something dramatic happens over the next few days, this will make 2015 the earliest September minimum since at least 2007, using NSIDC data.1
The two lowest September ice extents (2007 and 2012) were also both later than average; this year’s minimum is the fourth lowest (see chart below).
Of course, all this fuss about how low the September minimum gets is irrelevant to polar bears: they are either on land or in the Arctic Basin, and virtually all are living off stored fat no matter where they are (see Arctic Basin bear here). What matters is when the refrozen ice reaches pregnant females that have preferred denning spots onshore (like in Svalbard) or for bears onshore waiting to return to the ice to hunt (like Davis Strait, and Western and Southern Hudson Bay bears). We won’t know that until October (for Svalbard) or November (for E. Canada).
Again, no sea ice death spiral or polar bears in peril because of it.
UPDATE 15 September 2015, 11:00 am PDT: Just published at the NSIDC website, 2015 minimum has been (tentatively) called at 4.41 mkm2, confirming my figure taken from their interactive graph (see below). However, despite the fact that their own data show that sea ice extent stayed at that value for three days, NSIDC has chosen the last day of that 3-day period rather than the first to represent the 2015 minimum. Go figure. That makes 2015 tied with 2011 for the earliest date for their official records, which seems more than a little self-serving and means I’m not changing the title of my post. NSIDC have also modified slightly some of the official extent figures for past minimums (added below) but it doesn’t really change anything.
Posted in Sea ice habitat
Tagged Arctic, death spiral, fast, freeze-up, habitat, MASIE, melt, minimum, NSIDC, polar bear, sea ice, September, summer
Sea ice looks low for this time of year but how does it compare to 2007, when summer ice habitat for polar bears hit a record-breaking low? What can the impact of 2007 ice levels on polar bears tell us about what to expect this year?
By this date in 2007 (8 August, Day 220, NSIDC Masie map below), there was almost 1 million km2 less ice than there is this year (map above). However, look which polar bear subpopulations not only survived, but thrived, through the 2007 low ice summer: Chukchi Sea, Southern Beaufort, Barents Sea, Davis Strait, Foxe Basin, Western Hudson Bay, and Southern Hudson Bay. That’s all of the subpopulations for which we have recent data.
There is more than a month left in the melt season, of course. However, while 2012 finished with a lower minimum ice extent due to a massive mid-August storm that broke up a lot of ice (Simmonds and Rudeva 2012), by the end of the first week of August (i.e, the 8th), there was more ice in 2012 than in 2007 and a bit less than this year (2012, 6.3 mkm2; 2007, 5.6 mkm2; 2015, 6.5 mkm2).
This means if less summer ice for a longer period of time impacts polar bear health and survival, conditions in 2007 should have had a noticeable impact on polar bears around the world. They didn’t. That suggests even if this September sea ice minimum is as low as 2007, it won’t have any negative impact on polar bear health or survival. The most profoundly negative documented impacts have come from thick sea ice in spring or suboptimal spring snow levels (Crockford 2015) and the evidence shows that variation in the extent of summer ice is simply irrelevant to polar bears.
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Arctic, extent, habitat loss, hunting, melt, polar bear, population, record-breaking, sea ice, summer, survival, threatened
Sea ice in at least three Eastern Canadian polar bear subpopulations is well above normal for this time of year, which means many bears are likely not ashore yet. The same is true in the Beaufort and Barents Seas – ice is melting but there is still a fair amount of sea ice close to popular shores. Cause for cheering, not raising alarms.
Southern Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, and Davis Strait, all have above average sea ice coverage, according to the Canadian Ice Service (see charts below).
Hudson Bay ice levels are particularly striking: the anomaly map below (“departure from normal”) is almost entirely blue (positive), showing how far it is above average. No wonder supply ships needed icebreaker help yesterday to get into Inukjuak on the eastern shore. Most of the ice is technically in the Southern Hudson Bay polar bear subpopulation region, which has a stable population.
Posted in Conservation Status, Sea ice habitat
Tagged Beaufort, Davis Strait, habitat, Hudson Bay, melt, polar bear, science, sea ice, Southern Hudson Bay, summer, Svalbard