Tag Archives: polynya

Polynyas are critical for polar bear spring feeding

Areas of open water or thin ice in spring are essential for the survival of Arctic species, as I emphasized in my recent peer-reviewed paper on polar bear ecology. Sea ice is still abundant in spring (April-June), which is the critical feeding period for polar bears: they must consume about 2/3 of the total calories they need for the entire year. Most of those calories come from newborn seals (ringed, bearded, and harp).

In southern areas, such as Hudson Bay and Davis Strait, virtually all of this feeding is completed by the end of May, making June a time of opportunistic hunting for most bears: if they find a seal, they will kill and eat it but if not, they can do without. That’s not just my opinion but the reason given by polar bear specialists themselves to explain why Southern Hudson Bay polar bear numbers had not declined in the 2000s despite a sudden increase in the ice-free season:

…even though break-up has advanced by up to 3-4 weeks in portions of Hudson Bay it still occurs no earlier than late June or early July so does not yet interfere with opportunities to feed on neonate ringed seal pups that are born in March-April in eastern Hudson Bay. Therefore, losing days or weeks of hunting opportunities during June and July deprives polar bears of the opportunity to feed on adult seals, but does not deprive them of the critical spring period when they are truly hyperphagic. [Obbard et al. 2016:29]

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Ancient polar bear remains explained by sea ice and polynyas: my peer-reviewed paper

My open-access, peer-reviewed paper on the ecology of ancient polar bears in relation to sea ice has just been published in Open Quaternary. It’s called ‘Polar Bear Fossil and Archaeological Records from the Pleistocene and Holocene in Relation to Sea Ice Extent and Open Water Polynyas’.

A unique compilation of more than 104 polar bear skeletal records from the Holocene and late Pleistocene shows that most ancient remains are associated with existing or ancient open water polynyas or the expansion of sea ice during past cold periods. This big-picture analysis indicates that as they do today, polar bears were most commonly found near polynyas throughout their known historical past because of their need for ice-edge habitats.

Read my longer summary below and download the paper here. This is a much-updated and expanded analysis based on an informal study I did in 2012.

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Educational video about Arctic sea ice to bookmark: excellent for adults and children

One of the recommended videos I included in my Arctic Sea Ice Ecosystem Teaching Guide is a film called “Edge of Ice”. Produced in 1986 (before climate change hype pervaded everything), this 55 minute documentary from the National Film Board of Canada (filmed in Lancaster Sound, Canada) is an excellent summary of Arctic sea ice and its ecology. Available for free streaming here.

Narrated in parts by an Inuk hunter, it not only shows virtually all of the species associated with ice edges in the central Canadian Arctic, including polar bears, but also explains the process of freezing and thawing; life under the ice and the importance of polynyas.

Worth bookmarking for future viewing if you can’t get to it right away. Beats watching the news these days. It’s also a reminder to tell your homeschooling friends and relatives over the holidays about my free Teaching Guide resource: it’s something many parents will find useful.

Polar bear habitat in Canada at the first week of June sees widening of critical polynyas

Winds primarily cause the apparent sea ice ‘breakup’ in late spring through the widening of persistent polynyas and shore leads. This year the development of critical open water areas in Canada (which are important feeding areas for polar bears) is on track with previous years in most areas, although there is a lot of year-to-year variability.

Several prominent polynas also opened up along the Russian coast and Northeast Greenland: see the entire Arctic condition at 7 June 2021 below, courtesy NSIDC:

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Spring polynyas in the Arctic then and now as feeding areas for hungry polar bears

Patches of open water in the Arctic that develop in the spring, including polynyas and widening shore leads, are largely due to the actions of wind and currents on mobile pack ice rather than ice melt. 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 in late spring.

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Spring feeding season almost over for polar bears & sea ice becomes less important

Here are ice conditions at the end of May, which signals the near-end of the critical spring feeding period for polar bears. This is because young-of-the-year seals take to the water to feed themselves, leaving only predator-savvy adults and subadults on the ice from some time in June onward (depending on the region).

masie_all_zoom_4km 2020 May 31_Day 152

Spring is the critical feeding period for polar bears (Crockford 2019, 2020; Lippold et al. 2020; Obbard et al. 2016):

“Unexpectedly, body condition of female polar bears from the Barents Sea has increased after 2005, although sea ice has retreated by ∼50% since the late 1990s in the area, and the length of the ice-free season has increased by over 20 weeks between 1979 and 2013. These changes are also accompanied by winter sea ice retreat that is especially pronounced in the Barents Sea compared to other Arctic areas. Despite the declining sea ice in the Barents Sea, polar bears are likely not lacking food as long as sea ice is present during their peak feeding period. Polar bears feed extensively from April to June when ringed seals have pups and are particularly vulnerable to predation, whereas the predation rate during the rest of the year is likely low. [Lippold et al. 2019:988]

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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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Polar bear habitat update mid-May: little change since 1989 despite CO2 increase

Sea ice habitat for polar bears has not become progressively worse each year during their season of critical feeding and mating, as some scaremongers often imply. It’s true that absolute extent of Arctic ice is lower this spring than it was in 1979. However, according to NSIDC Masie figures, polar bear habitat at mid-May registers about 12 million km2, just as it did in 2006 (although it is distributed a little differently); other data show spring extent has changed little since a major decline occurred in 1989, despite ever-rising CO2 levels.

Polar bear feeding_Shutterstock_sm

In other words, there has been virtually no change in sea ice cover over the last 12 years, despite the fact that atmospheric CO2 has now surpassed 410 parts per million, a considerable and steady increase over levels in 2006 which were about 380 ppm (see below, from the Scripps Oceanographic Laboratory, included in the Washington Post story 3 May 2018):

Scripps CO2 curve at 29 April 2018

Not only that, but if rising CO2 levels were responsible for the decline of sea ice and implied effects on polar bears since 1979 (when CO2 levels were around 340 ppm), why has spring ice extent been so variable since 1989 (when the first big decline occurred) but so little changed overall since then? See the NSIDC graph below for April:

Sea ice 2018 April average_NSIDC graph

This year on day 134 (14 May), global ice cover registered 12.3 mkm2:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 May 14

In 2016 on the same day, the overall extent was much the same but there was more ice in the Chukchi and Bering Seas and less in the eastern Beaufort:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2016 May 14

More close-up charts of different regions below for 2018 vs. 2016, showing more detail.

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Polynya refresher: open water in spring is due to winds & currents, not ice melt

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.

Beaufort Sea male polar bear USGS_2005 Amstrup photo

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.

Seal habitat frozen open lead_Beaufort 2008_Miller

Seals hauled out beside a lightly frozen over lead in Beaufort Sea ice, 2008. USFWS.

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Southern Beaufort sea ice melt in May: good news for polar bears or catastrophe?

Last week biologist Andrew Derocher recently implied via twitter that less sea ice in the eastern portion of the Southern Beaufort (SB) this year at mid-May is harmful to polar bears (calling it “a hole in the ice where polar bears used to live“), but both long-term and short-term data don’t support such a glass-half-empty interpretation.

Not only does spring breakup of sea ice in the SB normally begin with such open patches of water (see the video above from last year) — driven by the powerful currents of the Beaufort Gyre, not ice melt (explained in detail here) — it may actually be necessary for the survival of local seals, polar bears and whales in spring and early summer (Citta et al. 2015; Crawford et al. 2015; Harwood et al. 2015; Stirling et al. 1981).

As I’ve pointed out before, the biggest threat to SB bears is thick sea ice in spring and its associated late breakup, a 2-3 year-long phenomenon unique to this region known to have occurred about every 10 years since the early 1960s (well documented in the scientific literature) but which has not (as far as I know) happened since 2004-2006.

In other words, a considerable patch of open water and less concentrated ice in the eastern SB around Cape Bathurst is almost certainly a good thing for this particular subpopulation (see previous post here for an in-depth discussion) because historically, when a polynya of some extent has not formed by April or May it has been devastating for local marine mammals.

The fact that an extensive patch of open water existed at mid-May in this region last year and the year before (2015 and 2016) — with no public hue-and-cry about a great dying of SB bears from Derocher or anyone else — suggests that open water in the eastern SB this year is likely to be beneficial for SB polar bears, or at least benign. Continue reading