Tag Archives: polar bears

Svalbard finds tranquilizing & removing problem polar bears comes with risks to bears

In Svalbard, Norway, it is routine practice to chase polar bears away from settlements with snow machines and helicopters, then tranquilize and relocate them if necessary but in late January this approach led to the death of a young male bear.

Svalbard pb visits Longyearbyen 28 Dec 2019 ICEPEOPLE

Necropsy results released 26 March 2020 revealed that the two year old bear, who had wandered into and around Longyearbyen multiple times in late January, was captured after a prolonged helicopter chase but died enroute as it was flown north to Nordaustlandet (see map below) from circulatory failure due to administering anesthesia after the prolonged stress of being chased.

Video here of the bear being chased out of Longyearbyen by helicopter (photo above is of the New Year’s bear). Longyearbyen has had more problems than usual with polar bears this winter due to the unusually extensive sea ice off the west coast of Svalbard. Polar bears are particularly dangerous in winter and with the abundance of bears in recent years many Arctic communities are at risk with each having to find their own solutions.

In the wee hours of New Years Day 2020 a fat Svalbard polar bear was shot because of persistent visits to downtown Longyearbyen and the public was outraged. A few weeks later a bear attacked a dogsled loaded with tourists. The death of the young bear in late January in the course of removing it (rather than shooting it) is a reminder that tranquilizing a polar bear, especially after a prolonged chase, can be as lethal as shooting it.

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Keeping the climate catastrophe message on track: a friendly warning from a colleague

Given the issues raised by the Nature Communications blacklist fiasco last week, I thought it might be useful to show readers who don’t work in science an example of the kind of not-so-subtle dissuasion that can be used by scientists-with-a-climate-message to keep their colleagues in line.

Sea_ice_near_coast_of_Labrador_-b_wikimedia_sm_26 March 2007

A male colleague I know from work in another field of biology recently sent me a cordial email that I’m sure he thought was simply helpful advice to a like-minded associate. I doubt he realized how outrageously patronizing and presumptuous he was being.

If I were a female scientist with less confidence and experience, a note like this might have intimidated me into silence. The fact that he thought it was an appropriate thing to do is one of the reasons we have such a problem in science right now. See what you think:

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Polar bear habitat update: open water primarily due to winds pushing pack ice

Here is a look at what polar bear habitat looks like this year at the end of May compared to previous years. It helps put any predictions of impending doom into perspective.

Polar_bear Bering Sea 2007 USFWS lg

This is the time year when declining sea ice gets some people all worked up. However, declining ice is normal at this time of year and there is always variation in where the most open water appears first. At this time of year, there isn’t much ice ‘melt’ going on. Rather, what we are seeing is the opening up of shore leads and polynyas by winds.

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Ringed and bearded seals, still listed as ‘threatened’, are still doing really well

This isn’t news but it’s good to hear it again, this time from the mouth of one of the biologists who collects the data: against all odds, the primary prey species of polar bears are doing spectacularly well.

Ringed seal Barrow AK_Brendan Kelly

According to leading seal biologist Lori Quakenbush of Alaska Department of Fish and Game, ringed and bearded seals in the Chukchi Sea are doing great (ADN, 11 February 2019, “Seals seem to be adapting to shrinking sea ice off Alaska”):

“We’re seeing fat seals,” said Lori Quakenbush, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Arctic Marine Mammal Program. “They are reproducing earlier than they have in the past, which says they are getting enough nutrition at this point to grow quickly and become reproductive at an earlier age.”

Quakenbush looking for ringed and bearded seals in Chukchi sea_11 Feb 2019 ADNRinged and bearded seals across the Arctic, including the Chukchi and Bering Seas, were listed as threatened in 2012 by the US, hot on the heels of polar bears given the same status in 2008 (USFWS 2008, 2012a, 2012b). But American biologists didn’t even pretend that the seals were currently suffering, they simply assumed they would sometime in the future (Cameron et al. 2010; Kelly et al. 2010).

Now, ten years worth of low sea ice of the kind expected to drive polar bears to the brink of extinction later, and ringed and bearded seals are doing better than they did in the late 1970s and early 1980s when there was more summer ice (Adam et al. 2019; Crawford and Quakenbush 2013; Crawford et al. 2015). Quakenbush now has data that extends the period of recent research to 2016, from 2013 previously.

It’s hard to imagine stronger evidence in support of retracting the ESA ‘threatened’ species status designation for ringed and bearded seals: clearly, ringed and bearded seals did not respond as expected when summer sea ice declined dramatically in 2007.

However, all that seems to have happened is that Quakenbush is willing to admit to a journalist that biologists can’t tell the future:

“…two predictions that we made about what could be bad for walruses, just within a couple of years turned around and were sort of the opposite.”

Quakenbush has been watching marine mammals throughout her long career, and she has given up predicting their future. She says that biologists know what the animals do with ice because they have studied that, but we don’t know what they do without it.

Read the whole thing here.

Unfortunately, predicting the future was precisely what US biologists insisted they could do accurately in 2012, even though no other conservation organization in the world concurred with their assessemnt, including the IUCN. The IUCN Red List classified both ringed and bearded seals as species of ‘Least Concern’ in 2008 and in 2016 (Kovacs 2016; Lowry 2016; Kovaks and Lowry 2008; Kovacs et al. 2008).1

Bearded Seal_25 Oct 2016_9th Circ. Backs Climate Predictions_The Guardian headline

Footnote 1. The suggestion made in this article that Sea of Okhotsk ringed seals have only recently begun to give birth on the sea ice without making snow caves or ‘lairs’ is not true. Sea of Okhotsk ringed seals have been known to give birth in the pack ice (not on fast ice) without snow dens since at least the 1960s (Fedoseev 1975:158; Kelly et al. 2010a:10) and also in the ice of western Svalbard (Smith et al. 1991:129).


Adam, R., Bryan, A., Quakenbush, L., Crawford, J., and Biderman, L.2019. Bearded seal productivity in Alaska using harvest-based monitoring, 1975-2016. Poster presentation, Alaska Marine Science Symposium, 28 January-1 February.

Abstract: Declines in arctic sea ice extent, thickness, and duration are projected to negatively impact bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) by reducing their time to rest, pup, nurse, and molt on sea ice. Existing population estimates for bearded seals in Alaska cannot be used to detect trends; however, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game works with Alaska Native hunters to collect data from the subsistence harvest that are used to determine several population health indices, such as: pregnancy rate, age of maturity, and the proportion of pups in the sampled harvest. These indices were previously used to determine if declines in sea ice have affected bearded seals between 1975–1984 and 2003–2014.

During these time periods pregnancy rates varied minimally (92–99%); however, the average age of maturity decreased from 4.2 years in 1975–1984 to 2.9 years in 2003–2014. Additionally, pups were harvested in lower proportions during 1975–1984 than during 2003–2014 (26% and 48%, respectively), indicating that pups are still being produced, weaned, and are surviving to be harvested. Through 2014, we have not detected the decreases in population indices that have been predicted to occur with climate change. However, due to continued declines in sea ice, further monitoring is important; therefore, here we update our 1975–2014 results to include samples from 2015 and 2016.

Cameron, M. F., Bengtson, J. L., Boveng, J. K., Jansen, J. K., Kelly, B. P., Dahle, S. P., Logerwell, E. A., Overland, J. E., Sabine, C. L., Waring, G. T. and Wilder, J. M. 2010. Status review of the bearded (Erignatha barbatus). NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-211.

Crawford, J. and Quakenbush, L. 2013. Ringed seals and climate change: early predictions versus recent observations in Alaska. Oral presentation by Justin Crawfort, 28th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium, March 26-29. Anchorage, AK. Abstract below, find pdf here:http://seagrant.uaf.edu/conferences/2013/wakefield-arctic-ecosystems/program.php

Crawford and Quakenbush_Wakefield Abstract_2013 Ringed Seal_predictions not met
Crawford, J.A., Quakenbush, L.T. and Citta, J.J. 2015. A comparison of ringed and bearded seal diet, condition and productivity between historical (1975–1984) and recent (2003–2012) periods in the Alaskan Bering and Chukchi seas. Progress in Oceanography 136:133-150.

Fedoseev, G. A. 1975. Ecotypes of the ringed seal (Pusa hispida Schreber, 1777) and their reproductive capabilities. In Biology of the Seal, K. Ronald and A.W. Mansfield (eds.), pp. 156-160. Rapports et Proces-verbaux des Reunions, Conseil International Pour L’Exploration de la Mer 169.

Kelly, B. P., Bengtson, J. L., Boveng, P. L., Cameron, M. F., Dahle, S. P., Jansen, J. K., Logerwell, E. A., Overland, J. E., Sabine, C. L., Waring, G. T. and Wilder, J. M. 2010. Status review of the ringed seal (Phoca hispida). NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-212.

Kovacs, K.M. 2016. Erignathus barbatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T8010A45225428. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/8010/0

Kovacs, K. and Lowry, L. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Erignathus barbatus. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. . Downloaded on 29 December 2012. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/8010/0

Kovacs, K., Lowry, L. and Härkönen, T. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Pusa hispida. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. . Downloaded on 29 December 2012. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41672/0

Lowry, L. 2016. Pusa hispida. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T41672A45231341. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41672/0

Smith, T. G., Hammill, M. O. and Taugbøl, G. 1991. A review of the development, behavioural and physiological adaptations of the ringed seal, Phoca hispida, to life in the arctic winter. Arctic 44:124-131.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2008. Determination of threatened status for the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) throughout its range. Federal Register 73: 28212-28303.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2012a. Threatened status for the Arctic, Okhotsk and Baltic subspecies of the ringed seal. Federal Register 77: 76706–76738.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2012b. Threatened status for the Beringia and Okhotsk distinct population segments of the Erignathus barbatus nauticus subspecies of the bearded seal. Federal Register 77: 76740–76768.

Images from 2017 and 2018 show polar bears thriving in a warming world

Candid images of fat, healthy bears taken over the last two years by unbiased photographers across the Arctic are representative of the state of polar bears in a world that’s warmer than it was in 1980.


Chukchi Sea polar bear on the sea ice, early August 2018. A Khan, NSIDC. Chukchi Sea bears are thriving, according to a new survey of the population.

It may seem counter-intuitive but it’s true: polar bears are thriving with less summer sea ice and there are more bears now than there were in 2005 (not a statistically significant amount more, but more nevertheless).

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Svalbard polar bears doing fine with much less sea ice say Norwegian biologists

“…despite the loss of good denning areas and a shrinking habitat for hunting, Svalbard’s bears seem to be doing fine.…The sea ice season is now several months shorter, and the ice edge typically lies several degrees further north than what was normal 20-40 years ago….Polar bears can survive long periods without food, provided they have accumulated a good fat reserve during the few months in spring and summer when sea ice is present, and seals are abundant.” [Jon Aars, Norwegian Polar Institute, 2018]

lying bear shutterstock_244419640_cropped_web size

Jon Aars from the Norwegian Polar Institute has written an update on the status of Svalbard polar bears for the general public (The Barents Observer, 8 January 2019, republished from a story published by The Fram Centre in their newsletter: Population changes in polar bears: protected, but quickly losing habitat).


Read the whole thing below (original has awesome photos). It reports the truth of the current situation with the usual caveats about what might happen decades into the future. Continue reading

Hudson Bay polar bear habitat is highest in more than two decades for this time of year

More ice in Hudson Bay and adjacent regions than we’ve seen at this time of year for more than two decades: not since 1993 has there been as much polar bear habitat in the 2nd-last week of November.

Sea ice Canada 2018 Nov 22

The anomaly chart for this week is almost all blue:

Hudson Bay weekly departure from normal 2018 Nov 19

Other years back to 1994 had much less ice for the 2nd-last week in November, as the charts below show. Colour charts are only available from 2004.

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Arctic sea ice habitat for polar bears is like a big pond that dries up partially in summer

What’s a good analogy for sea ice as essential polar bear habitat? Biologist Andrew Derocher claims that the soil in a forest is appropriate, because without the soil you can’t have the forest ecosystem. However, that’s a specious comparison because the amount of soil in a forest does not change markedly with the seasons the way that Arctic sea ice does.


A much better analogy is a big pond that dries up a bit every summer. The amount of habitat available to sustain aquatic plants, amphibians and insects is reduced in the dry season but many species have special adaptations for surviving reduced water availability. For the rest of the year, however, the pond provides an abundant and non-limiting habitat for all the creatures and plants that live there.

Beaver pond USFWS

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New ice on Hudson Bay a week earlier than 2017: another early freeze-up ahead?

Last year, an early freeze-up of Western Hudson Bay sea ice almost ruined the Polar Bear Week campaign devised by Polar Bears International to drum up donation dollars and public sympathy for polar bear conservation. Many bears were on the ice hunting by 7-8 November in 2017 before the celebratory week was done (the average date that bears left the ice in the 1980s): sea ice charts suggest the same may be happening this year.

Polar bears off Churchill_2000-11-20_wikipedia

Ice is forming along the Hudson Bay coast more than a week earlier than it was last year (barely discernible on the map below but detailed ice charts show it clearly), consistent with early build-up of ice in the Canadian Archipelago, East Greenland, and Foxe Basin since mid-September.

Sea ice Canada 2018 Oct 23

The question is: will the ice continue to build over the next few weeks or get blown offshore? See the ice charts below for this year and 2017.
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Now at least 10 years with sea ice at 2050-like levels yet polar bears are still abundant

We’ve hit the seasonal Arctic sea ice minimum for this year, called this morning by US NSIDC for 19th and 23rd of Septmeber: 4.59 mkm2, the same extent as 2008 and 2010. This is not a “ho-hum” year for polar bears: it means that since 2007, they have triumphed through 10 or 11 years1 with summer ice coverage below 5.0 mkm2 —  levels that in 2007 were expected to cause catastrophic declines in numbers.


Summer sea ice below 5.0 mkm2 were not expected to occur until about 2050, according to 2005/2006 sea ice models and polar bear specialists at the US Geological Survey (USGS). Polar bear survival models predicted 2/3 of the world’s polar bears would disappear when ice levels reached this threshold for 8 out of 10 years (Amstrup et al. 2007, 2008; Hunter 2007) but polar bears have been more resilient than expected (Crockford 2017, 2018; Crockford and Geist 2018). In fact, in many areas (like the Chukchi Sea, Barents Sea and Foxe Basin) polar bears are thriving despite dramatic declines in summer sea ice coverage (Aars et al. 2017; ACSWG 2018; Peacock et al. 2013; Regehr et al. 2016; Stapleton et al. 2016).

The sea ice models used to support the addition of polar bears to the US Endangered Species List as ‘threatened’ with extinction suggested sea ice levels from 3-5 mkm2 would not occur unti mid-century, yet they dropped before the ink was dry on the 2007 USGS Reports (ACIA 2005; Hassol 2004; Holland et al. 2006; Solomon et al. 2007; Zhang and Walsh 2006).

The ice extent charts from the University of Bremen (below) show ice that’s 50% concentration or greater at the date of the seasonal minimum (19th September): what polar bear specialists define as preferred habitat (Amstrup et al. 2007).


Compare the minimum shown above to the coverage predicted for 2050 and to coverage at the minimum in 2012 (the NSIDC image is here):

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