Tag Archives: starving polar bears

Polar bear biologists imply “summer sea ice” and “sea ice” are synonymous

According to sea ice experts, winter sea ice habitat for polar bears is not expected to decline at all by 2050 and the critical spring sea ice that polar bears need for gorging on young seals and for mating is not predicted to change much (Durner et al. 2007, 2009), which is why computer modelled predictions about the dire future for polar bears only assessed the potential future effects of declining summer sea ice (e.g. Amstrup et al. 2007; Stirling and Derocher 2012). Note spring is April-June.

Female with cubs Beaufort_USFWS credit 2007 w label_sm

See if that fact is clear in the interview responses by out-spoken polar bear biologists that has just been published in the polar bear portion (“Beyond the polar bear”) of this year’s University of Alberta magazine spring climate change feature. If you can get past the “canaries in the coal mine” opener…
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Southern Hudson Bay polar bears are not starving to death

Reposted from 23 March 2016: Despite the fact that the polar bears of Southern Hudson Bay (SHB) live further south year round than any others, a recent study found their average body weight has declined relatively little since the 1980s. There has been no decline in the size of the population over that time either.

James Bay female and cub_Ontaro Govt

Remarkably – despite what we are told about how critical breakup dates are to polar bear health and survival in Hudson Bay – this study found that for SHB bears, the small decline in body condition index correlated only with freeze-up dates, not breakup dates or length of the ice-free season. They also found that regional breakup and freeze-up dates relevant to polar bears in this area was the day when ice cover reached 5% (not 50%).

In other words, SHB polar bears left the ice (or returned to it) when the average ice cover near the coast was about 5%. This finding is yet more evidence that the meteorological definition of “breakup” (date of 50% ice cover) used by many researchers (see discussion here) is not appropriate for describing the seasonal movements of polar bears on and off shore.

The news (two weeks after this post originally went up, see also here), however, is about the bit of weight decline, hyped to the maximum.

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Snow depth over spring sea ice affects polar bear feeding success and ringed seal survival

Snow depth over sea ice in spring affects the hunting success of polar bears on ringed seal (Phoca hispida) pups, but the relationship is more complicated than you might think and there is less data on this phenomenon than you would believe.

Ringed seal lair_snow and ice thickness_PolarBearScience_sm

Regional snow depth in spring (April-May) varies naturally from year to year due to weather patterns driven in part by long-term climate cycles (like the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and the Arctic Oscillation).

This year, it was very cold in Eastern North America, with record-breaking snow fall in some areas. Snow depth was apparently greater than average over Hudson Bay sea ice this spring but was it deep enough to have impaired polar bear hunting success?

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Labrador polar bears face a longer ice-free season than Hudson Bay bears, but do well

Pretty typical ice levels in both regions for this time of year – Davis Strait polar bears (especially those in Labrador) are still onshore while Hudson Bay bears (even those in the south) have their sea ice hunting platform back.

Davis Strait Hudson Bay freeze-up at Nov 25 2014_PolarBearScience

Funny thing is, the Davis Strait subpopulation may still be increasing despite a longer ice-free season than Western Hudson Bay. And bears in the south of that region – who spend the summer onshore in Labrador – have the longest ice-free season of all1 yet according to the latest survey they were even doing better than bears in northern Davis Strait.

That apparent paradox has an easy explanation – sea ice extent in late summer/early fall (length of the ice-free season) has much less of an impact on polar bear health and abundance than the state of the food supply in the spring. More seals in spring, polar bears do well; few seals in spring, polar bears starve.

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Declining polar bear weights and early breakup dates in WHB, Part I: What’s a starving bear?

The oft-repeated claim that polar bears are starving in Western Hudson Bay (e.g., here, here, here, and here) comes primarily from a 10 year old study that documented a declining trend in polar bear body condition (a biology euphemism for relative fatness) between 1980 and 2004, which appeared to correlate with earlier and earlier breakup dates for Hudson Bay.

Figure 1. Polar bear female with cub, 2009, Churchill, Western Hudson Bay. Wikipedia.

Figure 1. Polar bear female with cub, 2009, Churchill, Western Hudson Bay. Wikipedia.

The authors of that study (polar bear specialist Ian Stirling and NASA sea ice researcher Claire Parkinson) reported the body weights of lone female bears captured in Western Hudson Bay between 1980 and 2004. The trend over time in those bear weights was then correlated with the overall change in dates of sea ice breakup on Hudson Bay for that period.

However, it turns out that while the trend of body condition and the trend in breakup dates indeed correlated over time, the actual year to year data did not. The question is, what does that mean for the claim that polar bears in WHB are starving?
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Journalists still pushing the “polar bears eat snow geese story,” as if it matters

I wrote about this issue in January (January – and journalists are still pushing it).

Courtesy NY Times, Sept. 22 2014.

Figure 1. Courtesy NY Times, Sept. 22 2014. Click to enlarge.

This month, the New York Times (September 22, 2014 James Gorman, “For Polar Bears, a Climate Change Twist”) is pushing it big-time (and so it’s been picked up elsewhere, like by the Anchorage Daily News).

Myths and misinformation about this phenomenon dispelled below.
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Current ice conditions don’t bode well for Beaufort Sea polar bears

Thick spring ice along the shore of the Eastern and Southern Beaufort is bad news for polar bears, especially females emerging from their dens with new cubs. Are those conditions developing now?

Beaufort Sea pressure ridges_Spring 1949 wikipedia sm

Every 10 years or so, since at least the 1960s, nearshore ice gets too thick for ringed seals to maintain their breathing holes and many breeding seals depart the area. This leaves a lot of polar bears without the baby seals they need to consume to get them through the rest of the year (that’s if they don’t (or can’t) leave themselves).

I’ve discussed various aspects of this phenomenon before, with references – see the list at the end of this post.

Sadly, we are on schedule for such conditions to recur – could be this year, could be next. The last time of heavy spring ice was 2004 and previous heavy ice conditions occurred the springs of 1964, 1974 (the worst), 1984, 1992 and 2004. The 2004-2006 event was reportedly almost as bad as the 1974-1976 event.

So, prompted by reports of the heaviest sea ice conditions on the East Coast “in decades” and news that ice on the Great Lakes is, for mid-April, the worst it’s been since records began, I took a close look at ice thickness charts for the Arctic. I’m not suggesting these conditions are necessarily related to Beaufort ice, just that they got me thinking.

Here’s a screencap of the US Navy ice thickness animation chart for yesterday [from WUWT Sea Ice Page]

Figure 1. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 18, 2014. Look at thick ice (yellow, 3.5-4.0 meters thick) spreading along the north coast of Alaska. See the 30 day animation here.

Figure 1. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 18, 2014. Look at thick ice (yellow, 3.5-4.0 meters thick) spreading along the north coast of Alaska. See the 30 day animation here.

Below is a similar image from about the same time last year, with the Southeast Beaufort Sea marked.

Figure 2. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 13, 2013. Southeastern Beaufort marked.

Figure 2. Arctic Sea Ice Thickness (NRL), for April 13, 2013. Southeastern Beaufort marked.

I don’t think this bodes well for Beaufort bears but we’ll have to wait and see if there are any reports of starving bears bit later this spring and summer. Sea ice charts aren’t a guarantee that this heavy spring ice phenomenon is developing in the Beaufort, but they could be a warning.

Below are archived ice age charts from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) for some previous years when Beaufort bears had trouble, especially 2004-2006, with which I compare this year’s conditions. [h/t Steve Goddard for alerting me to this resource]

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