Tag Archives: Russia

Less Svalbard polar bear habitat during the early Holocene than now

Svalbard in the western Barents Sea has recently had less sea ice extent than it had in the 1980s, especially in the west and north, but this is not unprecedented.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

New evidence from clams and mussels with temperature-sensitive habitat requirements confirm that warmer temperatures and less sea ice than today existed during the early Holocene period about 10.2–9.2 thousand years ago and between 8.2 and 6.0 thousand years ago (based on radio carbon dates) around Svalbard. Barents Sea polar bears almost certainly survived those previous low-ice periods, as they are doing today, by staying close to the Franz Josef Land Archipelago in the eastern half of the region where sea ice is more persistent.

As this sea ice chart for 18 April 2018 shows, ice this month has been virtually absent from the west and north coasts of the Svalbard Archipelago, while Franz Josef Land to the east is surrounded by highly concentrated pack and land-fast ice.

Barents Sea ice 2018 April 18 NIS

From a new paper by Jan Mangerud and John Svendsen (2018) [my bold]:

Svalbard, located between 74° and 81°N, is the warmest place on Earth at this latitude (Drange et al., 2013). This is because of the North Atlantic Current and large-scale atmospheric circulation which transport warm water and air masses from lower latitudes northwards across the Atlantic and along the coast of Norway to Svalbard (Figure 1). Yet, during the Holocene Thermal Maximum, the climate of Svalbard was considerably warmer than at present.

The transition from Younger Dryas cold to Holocene Thermal Maximum warm conditions took place very rapidly, according to records from nearby Greenland (Taylor et al. 1997), warming in “steps” of about five years each over a period of about 40 years. This was at least as fast, if not faster than, recent Arctic warming between the 1980s and 2015. And since polar bears of the Barents Sea and adjacent Arctic areas appear to have survived this change to Holocence Thermal Maximum conditions, it challenges the notion that recent warming has been (or will be) too fast to allow polar bears to survive without huge changes in their present distribution (Amstrup et al. 2007).
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Russia confirms Chukchi Sea polar bears not at risk from climate change or poaching

A statement yesterday from Yegor Vereshchagin, wildlife conservation manager from Chukotka, Russia  (Polar Bears Adjust to Climate Change, 20 February 2018) confirms that Chukchi Sea polar bears are currently doing extremely well.

Rode and Regehr 2010_Chukchi_report2010_Fig1_triplets_labelled

Contrary to previous reports and predictions (e.g. Amstrup 2011; Amstrup et al. 2007, 2008; Durner et al. 2009), there appears to be no threats due to recent declines in summer sea ice (Rode and Regehr 2010; Rode et al. 2013, 2014, 2018) or from poaching.
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Franz Josef Land is a sea ice refugium for most pregnant Barents Sea polar bears

Consensus polar bear expert Andrew Derocher has been busy over the last few weeks, expounding a story of doom regarding Svalbard area polar bears (e.g. here and here), ridiculing the suggestion that Franz Josef Land is viable alternate habitat for Barents Sea bears, especially pregnant females looking for a place to den and give birth. But the facts say otherwise.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

Below are the long answers, with references and ice maps, to the questions Derocher asked in his 21 December 2017 tweet (above), a refreshing change from the ‘take my word for it, I’m the official expert’ answer one gets from him, along with derogatory slurs directed at those who don’t share his pessimism.

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Fat healthy polar bear update: hundreds of not-starving bears attracted to dead whale

Are the hundreds of polar bears spending the summer on Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea starving and desperate for any scrap of food? Hardly! Photos taken by Russian tourists on a cruise ship (19 September 2017) show a huge number of already-fat, healthy bears converging on a dead bowhead whale washed up on a beach. Most of these bears would have been without food since at least early August, when the last sea ice disappeared around the island, and will return to the ice by November.

Wrangel Island bears on whale_29 Sept 2017 SUN

This is what The Sun reported (29 September), based on a Siberian Times story (my bold):

The extraordinary sight was witnessed by tourists on an Arctic cruise aboard the Finnish-built MV Akademik Shokalskiy.

A source at Wrangel Island Nature Reserve said: “There were at least 230 polar bears, including single males, single females, mothers with cubs and even two mothers with four cubs each.”

Experts called the sight of so many polar bears together “unique”.

The huge number could in fact amount to as much one per cent of the entire world’s population of the creatures.

Tourists initially thought the bears were a flock of sheep after viewing them from a distance, The Siberian Times reports.

But as the boat drew closer, the lucky holidaymakers realised what they were witnessing.

Fat cubs of the year are seen in the photo below, from the Siberian Times story:

Wrangel Island bears on whale_29 Sept 2017 Siberian TimesA self-proclaimed science-based news site (LiveScience, 29 September) that picked up the story of this unique event had the temerity to suggest the bears might have been “hungrier than usual” due to global warming.

It deliberately conflates predictions of future starving bears due to low sea ice levels with this observation of many obviously not-starving bears checking out an attractive food source (my bold):

“It’s unclear, however, whether climate change had made these particular bears hungrier than usual. The frequency of starving polar bears is expected to increase as the climate warms and sea ice declines — not just because of climate change directly, but because ice loss is taking away seals, their main food source, Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying polar bears, told Live Science in 2015.”

Except that there is no evidence that ice loss is “taking seals away” — certainly not in the Chukchi Sea. Chukchi Sea seals have been found to be doing better with less ice than they were when there was more ice in the 1980s.

More below, including the location of Wrangel Island and sea ice maps.

UPDATE 2 October 2017: Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has been lower this summer than over the last few years but the polar bears spending the ice-free season on Wrangel Island are still in good to excellent condition:

r02_Chukchi_Sea_ts_4km at 2017 Oct 1

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Climate change not forcing polar bears to hunt humans but lack of baby seals might

At least a dozen polar bears that besieged a remote Russian weather station on an island in the Kara Sea during the first two weeks of September prompted a few media pundits to suggest that loss of summer sea ice due to global warming may be forcing polar bears to hunt humans for food. Headlines like the one below, from the IB Times, fueled such notions:

russian-scientists-trapped-by-polar-bears-14-sept-2016_ib-times

Eye-catching though such headlines might be, this is more sensationalism than reality.  These particular bears have been onshore since early July this year (about the time some Western Hudson Bay bears come ashore) and sea ice conditions have been similar this time of year since 2007. In other words, despite what some writers are claiming, sea ice conditions this year are nothing new.

A few bears usually visit this station each summer when the sea ice leaves – but this year there were more than a dozen bears rather than a few. My opinion as a scientist is that more bearsmore bears that are increasingly unafraid of people – are likely the cause of the sudden increase in numbers of bears being a problem at this location. Note that of the 14 bears, four were cubs, which is a good crop of youngsters.

In addition, hunting polar bears is banned in Russia and this incident shows to what lengths people must go to avoid killing them – the population must be booming and may be higher yet than the last population count (in 2013) of about 3,200 bears. More bears means more competition for food, which means more assertive bears get the goods. None of these bears were described as thin or starving – see more photos, like the one below, from the Russian weather station (Daily Mail, 18 September 2016).

russian-weather-station-troynoy-island_mailonline-18-sept-2016

While polar bears are always on the look-out for food (and thus always a potential threat to humans), they are most apt to be truly dangerous in winter (when they are at their lowest body weight)  and in spring if seals are in short supply.

That’s why my new polar bear attack thriller EATEN is set in early spring, in a year when seals happen to be scarce. Imagine the damage those Russian polar bears could have done if they’d been truly desperate for food – a mere door or window would not have stopped them.

Imagine if dozens of truly ravenous polar bears stalk and ambush people across a great frozen landscape, taking them by complete surprise because no one considers a bear attack in spring to be a real possibility. What if dozens of people have been killed and eaten by hungry polar bears and there is no end in sight? That is the premise of EATEN – a science-based novel set in Newfoundland that will scare your pants off.

This is a great read for fall, when polar bear encounter stories abound. Hopefully the reports this year won’t include the kind of serious mauling that happened in 2003.

sept-reading-promo_eaten
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Kara Sea: first-ever polar bear count suggests about 3,200 bears live there

The first-ever population estimate for polar bears in the Kara Sea is an astonishing 3,200 bears (range 2,700-3,500). Russian researchers report the results in a new paper (Matishov et al. 2014, in English).

Kara Sea_PBSG

Polar bear counts were made during late winter/early spring (approximately January to April) from ice-breakers between 1997 and 2013. Females with cubs (whether one or two) were noted. The counts were extrapolated to give a total for the entire region (as is usual for all such surveys).

The question is, will the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) consider this new polar bear count to be reliable or complete enough to include in their next IUCN assessment?

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Russia the first to ban polar bear hunting in 1956, not a surprise why

Soviet soldier in a tank, feeding condensed milk to polar bears c. 1950 (i.imgur.com), via Redditt 16 November 2014.

Soviet soldier in a tank, feeding condensed milk to polar bears c. 1950 - Imgur

Sponsored by the Russian Dash Cams Association. Reminding you to drive your tank safely and avoid hitting polar bears.”

Apparently, polar bears are attracted to tanks as they are to ships and submarines, which made them easy targets for men with guns. This, along with the rather extensive use of so-called ‘set guns’ (a baited apparatus fixed with a loaded shotgun), led to a significant decline of polar bears in the U.S.S.R. and the Barents Sea area by the 1950s. See also, “The slaughter of polar bears that rarely gets mentioned (ca. 1890-1930)

This was the real threat to polar bears and it was successfully halted by international agreement in 1973. We should not forget that polar bears are a conservation success story.