Tag Archives: polar bear

Not a myth: State of the Polar Bear Report shows 2020 was another good year for polar bears

The ‘State of the Polar Bear Report 2020’ is now available. Forget hand-wringing about what might happen fifty years from now – celebrate the fabulous news that polar bears had yet another good year.

Press release from the Global Warming Policy Forum:

Download the report here.

Cite as:

Crockford, S.J. 2021. The State of the Polar Bear Report 2020. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 48, London.

 

London, 27 February: A prominent Canadian zoologist says that Facebook’s information is gravely out of date and 2020 was another good year for polar bears.

 

In the State of the Polar Bear Report 2020, published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on International Polar Bear Day, zoologist Dr. Susan Crockford explains that while the climate change narrative insists that polar bear populations are declining due to reduced sea ice, the scientific literature doesn’t support such a conclusion.

Crockford clarifies that the IUCN’s 2015 Red List assessment for polar bears, which Facebook uses as an authority for ‘fact checking’, is seriously out of date. New and compelling evidence shows bears that in regions with profound summer ice loss are doing well.

Included in that evidence are survey results for 8 of the 19 polar bear subpopulations, only two of which showed insignificant declines after very modest ice loss. The rest were either stable or increasing, and some despite major reductions in sea ice. As a result, the global population size is now almost 30,000 – up from about 26,000 in 2015.

Dr. Crockford points out that in 2020, even though summer sea ice declined to the second lowest levels since 1979, there were no reports of widespread starvation of bears, acts of cannibalism, or drowning deaths that might suggest bears were having trouble surviving the ice-free season.

As Crockford’s report reveals, plankton growth – the critical health measure of marine life in the Arctic – reached record highs in August 2020. More plankton (‘primary productivity’) due to less summer ice means more fodder for the entire food chain, including polar bears. This explains why bears are thriving in areas such as the Barents Sea, which have seen reduced levels of sea ice.

Dr. Crockford notes that, ironically, polar bears in Western Hudson Bay experienced excellent ice conditions for the fourth year in a row in 2020. Bears were fat and healthy when they arrived on shore for the summer. Some spent as little as three months on shore – about one month less time than most bears did in the 1980s and two months less than bears did in the 1990s and 2000s.

Dr. Crockford explains that polar bears are more flexible in their habitat requirements than experts assumed and less summer ice has so far been beneficial rather than detrimental.

“Polar bears continue to be described as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ for the effects of human-caused climate change, but the evidence shows they are far from being a highly-sensitive indicator species. It’s not a myth: 2020 appears to have been another good year for polar bears.”

 

Key Findings

  • Results of three new polar bear population surveys were published in 2020 and all were found to be either stable or increasing.
  • Southern Beaufort polar bear numbers were found to have been stable since 2010, not reduced as assumed and the official estimate remains about 907.
  • M’Clintock Channel polar bear numbers more than doubled from 284 in 2000 to 716 in 2016, due to reduced hunting and improved habitat quality (less multiyear ice).
  • Gulf of Boothia numbers were found to be stable, with an estimate of 1525 bears in 2017; body condition increased between study periods and thus showed ‘good potential for growth’.
  • At present, the official IUCN Red List global population estimate, completed in 2015, is 22,000-31,000 (average about 26,000) but surveys conducted since then, including those made public in 2020, would raise that average to almost 30,000. There has been no sustained statistically significant decline in any subpopulation.
  • Reports on surveys in Viscount Melville (completed 2016) and Davis Strait (completed 2018) have not yet been published; completion of an East Greenland survey is expected in 2022.
  • In 2020, Russian authorities announced the first-ever aerial surveys of all four polar bear subpopulations (Chukchi, Laptev, Kara, and Barents Seas), to be undertaken between 2021 and 2023.
  • Contrary to expectations, a new study has shown that polar bear females in the Svalbard area of the Barents Sea were in better condition (i.e. fatter) in 2015 than they had been in the 1990s and early 2000s, despite contending with the greatest decline in sea ice habitat of all Arctic regions.
  • Primary productivity in the Arctic has increased since 2002 because of longer ice-free periods (especially in the Laptev, East Siberian, Kara, and Chukchi Seas but also in the Barents Sea and Hudson Bay), but hit records highs in 2020; more fodder for the entire Arctic food chain explains why polar bears, ringed and bearded seals, and walrus are thriving despite profound sea ice loss.
  • In 2020, contrary to expectations, freeze-up of sea ice on Western Hudson Bay came as early in the autumn as it did in the 1980s (for the fourth year in a row) and sea-ice breakup in spring was also like the 1980s; polar bears onshore were in excellent condition. These conditions came despite summer sea-ice extent across the entire Arctic being the second lowest since 1979. Data collected since 2004 on weights of female polar bears in Western Hudson Bay have still not been published; instead, polar bear specialists have transformed standard body condition data collected 1985–2018 into a new metric for population health they call ‘energetics’, which cannot be compared with previous studies. Meanwhile, they continue to cite decades-old raw data from previous studies to support statements that lack of sea ice is causing declines in body condition of adult females, cub survival, and population size.
  • Contrary to expectations, in Western Hudson Bay, many polar bears remained on the deteriorating sea ice much longer than usual in summer, and stayed ashore longer in fall after official freeze-up thresholds had been reached, calling into question the assumed relationship between sea-ice coverage and polar bear behaviour and health. Some bears that left the ice in late August and then returned before late November would have spent only three months onshore – about one month less time than typical in the 1980s, and two months less than in the 1990s and 2000s.
  • There were few problem polar bear reports in 2020, except for one fatal polar bear attack in August, in a campground near Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Ryrkaypiy, Chukotka, which in 2019 was besieged by more than 50 bears that had congregated to feed on walrus carcasses nearby, avoided a similar problem in 2020 by posting guards around the town. The town of Churchill saw the lowest number of problems bears in years.
  • In 2020, virtually all polar bear research was halted across the Arctic for the entire year due to restrictions on travel and efforts to isolate vulnerable northern communities from Covid-19.

Fact: polar bears are thriving despite sea ice loss according to the scientific literature

Is Facebook now an expert on polar bear conservation status? Apparently they have decreed themselves the last word for online content. There is a plan afoot to label anything that says polar bears are not being harmed by recent sea ice declines as ‘disinformation’ – but on whose authority? Thanks to Josh for the cartoon below.

A new section of the Climate Science Information Center, launching alongside the labelling trial, debunks common myths such as the false claim that polar bear populations are not suffering due to global heating, or the widespread belief that excess carbon emissions help plant life. Facebook is working with climate communication experts from around the world, including at the University of Cambridge, to produce the content.

Ah, they’re consulting ‘climate communication experts‘! Those experts surely must be up on all the latest papers and not trusting the word of obviously biased conservations organizations like the WWF or PBI whose real reason for existence is the generation of as much money in donations as possible?

The peer reviewed literature supports the claim that polar bears are currently thriving despite recent ice declines – especially in the Chukchi and Barents Seas – regardless of what computer model predictions say about what might happen in the future. This is a fact, not a ‘myth’. See my paper from 2017 and my 2019 book for most of the citations (Crockford 2017, 2019) and others in the reference list below. Check them out yourself before you believe Facebook. Ask me for any paper you’d like to see via the ‘contact me’ form and I’ll send it along. Also, look for my State of the Polar Bear Report 2020 next week.

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Polar bear sea ice habitat highs and lows in early February

Sea ice across the Arctic in the first week of February is a mix of highs and lows. Bering Sea is back up to almost normal coverage, as is the Barents Sea. However, ice coverage on the East Coast of Canada is the lowest its been in four decades. This is not yet a worry for polar bears because harp seals don’t pup until mid-March in this region so there is at least four weeks of potential ice growth that can happen before the seals are forced to pup on much reduced ice – where polar bears are sure to find them.


Here is a close-up look at sea ice conditions by region at the edges of the Arctic. Continue reading

Attenborough’s cliff-dying walrus convinced elite Davos influencers of a global climate emergency

For the past two years, the Netflix/Attenborough ruse to blame climate change for walruses falling from a high cliff to their deaths seemed like a silly PR stunt. But it appears the film’s real purpose was to convince a far more important audience than paying Netflix customers that a global ‘climate emergency’ was going on: the elite influencers and world leaders who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019, where the dying walrus film clip was introduced and interpreted to the audience by Sir David Attenborough himself.

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Interview with Tom Harris about the state of polar bear conservation Part 2

Here is the second part of a great conversation I had recently with Tom Harris from iHeartRADIO (‘Exploratory Journeys with Tom Harris’) about polar bear conservation, the price I’ve paid for speaking out about polar bears and my new polar bear science book, The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. We also talked about my polar bear attack thriller, EATEN. Have a listen to the podcast here! Part 1 is here in case you missed it.

 

Polar bears can come ashore any time of year and cause trouble: a timely reminder

If you thought polar bears were only a danger to people in summer when sea ice is low, think again. Bears do occasionally come ashore early to mid-winter looking for food because hunting is difficult and they are approaching their leanest time of year. They simply walk from the ice onto land – often close to communities – because many things associated with modern human living are food attractants for polar bears.

This tracking map of Western Hudson Bay bears (females with collars) 11 January 2021 (courtesy Andrew Derocher) shows a bear just offshore near the community of Whale Cove on the northwest coast – close enough to come ashore if she decides that could be in her best interests:

Derocher had this to say about the location of this bear (12 Jan 2021):

It may be ‘odd’ for a bear to be so close to shore in winter but since we know that polar bears do come ashore in winter, it isn’t rare but ‘uncommon’. Most of the trouble with bears ashore seems to come in March/April on the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland when sea ice is more extensive and where 2017 was an exceptional year.

Trouble with bears in January/February:

2019 Labrador, Bears reported onshore in Labrador (January 2)

2019 Labrador, Bears onshore in Labrador causing problems (February 1)

2019 Alaska, Polar bear attack hundreds of miles from shore (January 15)

2016 Labrador, Bears onshore in Labrador (7 February)

2016 Summary of prior incidents and attractants (19 March)

Below: Sea ice conditions at 13 January 2021, North America compared to 2020 and 2019, showing how extensive the ice was in 2019 (and accounting for bears ashore at Labrador and Newfoundland in early January):

Below is a chart from 1985, when sea ice off Labrador and Newfoundland was as thick in mid-January as it was in 2019, yet as far as I know, there were no reports of bears ashore in Labrador or northern Newfoundland. This difference is almost certainly because the population size of Davis Strait bears had not yet recovered from previous centuries of overhunting and harp seals numbers were still quite low compared to what they rose to over the next three decades: currently, both Davis Strait polar bears and harps seals are abundant (DFO 2012, 2014, 2020; Peacock et al. 2013) and numbers could still be climbing, although the results of a recent bear survey in the region has not yet been published.

References

Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) 2012. Current status of northwest Atlantic harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus). Science Advisory Report 2011/070.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada DFO. 2014. Status of Northwest Atlantic harp seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2014/011.

DFO. 2020. 2019 Status of Northwest Atlantic Harp Seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2020/020. http://www.isdm-gdsi.gc.ca/csas-sccs/applications/Publications/result-eng.asp?params=0&series=7&year=2020 PDF here.

Peacock, E., Taylor, M.K., Laake, J., and Stirling, I. 2013. Population ecology of polar bears in Davis Strait, Canada and Greenland. Journal of Wildlife Management 77:463–476. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jwmg.489/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

Interview with Tom Harris about the state of polar bear conservation Part 1

Here is the first part of a great conversation I had recently with Tom Harris from iHeartRADIO (‘Exploratory Journeys with Tom Harris’) about polar bear conservation and my upcoming State of the Polar Bear Report. Have a listen to the podcast here! Part 2 coming shortly is here.

Arctic report card 2020 highlights the huge benefit of less summer sea ice: more food

As well as summarizing sea ice changes, NOAA’s 2020 Arctic Report Card features two reports that document the biggest advantage of much less summer sea ice than there was before 2003: increased primary productivity. Being at the top of the Arctic food chain, polar bears have been beneficiaries of this phenomenon because the Arctic marine mammals they depend on for food – seals, walrus and bowhead whales – have been thriving despite less ice in summer.

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Top six polar bear stories of 2020

Here are the six most important polar bear stories I wrote about in 2020 that are worth reading if you missed them.

 

These posts cover new evidence that polar bears are thriving (including more populations stable or increasing) despite recent declines in summer sea ice blamed on climate change, an explanation of why the simplistic ‘less ice, fewer bears’ is false and a short post that shows a much-publicized new model predicting future extinction of polar bears is scientifically implausible. Honourable mention goes to a story refuting the claim that Alaskan polar bear cubs are at risk from oil exploration in coastal Wildlife Refuge.

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Late fall polar bear habitat 2020 compared to some previous years

It’s time to look at sea ice habitat at 15 December (Julian Day 350), now that virtually all bears except pregnant females throughout the Arctic are either out on the sea ice attempting to hunt for seals or hunkered down against the darkness.

As is usual at this time of year, the Canadian Archipelago, the Beaufort, East Siberian and Laptev Seas are well covered in ice (see regions on map below). As for the rest, despite what one polar bear specialist has implied there is no evidence that a slower-than-usual fall freeze-up in the other peripheral seas of the Arctic negatively affects polar bear health or survival.

In fact, because of the attractiveness of the ice edge for seals in the fall, as I discussed last month, it’s possible that the longer the ice edge persists in fall, the more successful polar bears will be in hunting seals – except those above the Arctic Circle where lack of daylight from early November may cause polar bears to hunker down and rest rather than try to hunt through the darkness. But we’ll never know for sure, because bears have never been studied at this time of year – experts simply make assumptions about what happens (e.g. Stirling and Oritsland 1995).

Sea ice thickness also varies year to year throughout the season but does not matter much to polar bears, who hunt most successfully in first year ice less than 2m in thickness, which comprises all of the regions currently purple in the ice thickness chart below.

Hudson Bay

This year at mid-December, there was more ice than usual in central and southern Hudson Bay (below) and somewhat less than usual in the eastern portion.

However, the ice is forming so fast now that by 18 December there was hardly any open water remaing over Hudson Bay and the ice to the north was solidifying (below). Recall that a similar freeze-up pattern left a pod of a dozen or so killer whales stranded in mid-January 2013 and killed four others in 2016. Such ice-entrapment suggests that despite a ‘warming’ Arctic, freeze-up patterns would have to change very dramatically for Hudson Bay to be an attractive place for killer whales. A recent DFO report concluded:

Killer whale ice entrapments are almost always fatal and can wipe out entire family groups, with long-lasting demographic impacts. Ice entrapments could therefore slow Arctic killer whale range expansions, particularly in areas where killer whales that are unfamiliar with sea-ice patterns fail to exit prior to ice formation in winter.

Compare Hudson Bay weekly stage of development charts (below) for this year back to 2014, from the Canadian Ice Service archives. You’ll see that this year appears to have more extensive 1st year ice (light green, ca. 30-70 cm) than any other year (although last year had almost as much) and that 2016 was notable as being a very late freeze-up year:

Western Hudson Bay polar bears with collars or tags deployed by Andrew Derocher and his University of Alberta crew (below) are spread out over the ice of the bay (two on land are denning females), a number are on the thickest ice in the north but others are on thinner ice to the south and east:

Baffin Bay, foxe basin, and Davis Strait

Ice covereage in the Canadian Eastern Arctic at mid-December is about average this year, according to CIS charts – only a bit of red and pink indicating ‘below normal’ in the east (off of Greenland):

Pack ice has moved down from the north through Baffin Bay into Davis Strait (below) and will soon be off the coast of Labrador, which has somewhat less ice than usual this year at mid-December:

The ice off Labrador at this time is shorefast ice developing and thickening in place (below). As far as we know, few polar bears summer on the northern Labrador coast, so this late ice development is unlikely to affect local bears. However, pack ice will move down during January and February until it engulfs the area north of Newfoundland, bringing some polar bears with it.

Greenland and Barents Sea

Freeze-up in the Greenland Sea is progressing a bit faster than usual for the last five years (below), but not remarkably so:

Ice cover in the Barents Sea (below) has been slow so far but has been progressing faster over the last few weeks. There is now ice off the east coast of Novaya Zemlya, shorefast ice that should allow any bears summering there to hunt for seals just as Western Hudson Bay bears do during early freeze-up stages. Within the next few weeks, the Arctic pack ice will move south into the Kara Sea, allowing bears to move more freely.Ice off Svalbard has been much below normal (below), as it has been for years now, which is why virtually all Barents Sea pregnant females currently make maternity dens in Franz Josef Land or on the sea ice to the north. These alternative areas for safely giving birth is the primary reason that the much reduced sea ice around Svalbard in recent years has not impacted Barents Sea polar bear health or survival.

Kara Sea

Ice cover in the Kara Sea at 15 December (below) is lower compared to the last five years but it’s unclear how much effect this will have on local polar bears.

Animals that have opted to spend the ice-free season on Novaya Zemlya or on the Russian mainland will have had a long wait for ice, but those that spent the summer on the Severnya Zemlya archipelago to the east had access to sea ice before the end of November. There has been no word from Belushaya Guba on whether the polar bear problems they had because of poorly maintained garbage dumps in December 2018 that went on until February 2019 have recurred this year.

Despite what Andrew Derocher claims (below), there is no evidence that slightly less sea ice in the fall is detrimental to polar bear health or survival in the Kara Sea or elsewhere. It is possible that it might but no one has studied it, so to suggest that low sea ice cover is ‘trouble’ for polar bears at this time of year is very misleading.

Chukchi/Bering Sea

Sea ice cover over the Chukchi Sea is a bit lower than it has been over the last few years, about as low as it was in 2017 (below).

Chukchi Sea polar bears at 14 December (below) had abundant sea ice habitat.

In 2016, when Chukchi polar bears were counted for the first time, there was a similar amount of ice at this time of year (below):

References

Stirling, I. and Øritsland, N. A. 1995. Relationships between estimates of ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations in the Canadian Arctic. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 52: 2594 – 2612. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/f95-849#.VNep0y5v_gU