Tag Archives: starving polar bears

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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Foxe Basin polar bear status – another stable population

Foxe Basin_PBSG

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulation regions defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group, Foxe Basin marked.

Foxe Basin is a large subpopulation region (Fig. 1), with a total area of 1.18 million square km (Vongraven and Peacock 2011). It comprises Northern Hudson Bay and western Hudson Strait, and the area between western Baffin Island and eastern Melville Peninsula, with a large island (Southampton Island) in the middle (Figs. 2 and 3).

Figure 1. Foxe Basin polar bears subpopulation region, courtesy IUCN PBSG

Figure 1. Foxe Basin polar bears subpopulation region, courtesy IUCN PBSG

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Thriving Foxe Basin and Davis Strait polar bears threaten nesting sea birds

UPDATE February 11, 2014. A reader (Kevin, at “Afton’s Waterfowl List”) has pointed out an error in Fig. 3, where I inadvertently labeled the bars on the upper graph as ending in 2011 instead of 2012 (the Pembroke graph ends at 2011. sigh..). I have corrected the figure and the text that refers to it, but do not believe it affects the overall conclusion. See for yourself. Thanks Kevin — and Alan for getting in touch!

Another round of press release inspired news stories emerged last week insisting that polar bear predation on ground-nesting birds during the summer ice-free period is evidence that they are nutritionally stressed by global warming.

A few weeks ago it was snow goose eggs in Western Hudson Bay – this time it’s thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia) and common eider (Somateria mollissima) eggs in Foxe Basin and Hudson Strait (e.g. see the story at Canada’s National Post and a short summary provided by Science [and it’s not even their paper!]). The source of the media attention this time is a newly-published paper by Samuel Iverson and colleagues (Iverson et al. 2014).

Figure 1. From Iverson et al. 2014 (their Fig.1), “map of the study area.” Most of the study sites are within the Foxe Basin polar bear subpopulation region (see Fig. 2 below), although the Ungava Peninsula (E), Ungava Bay (F) and Frobisher Bay (C) sites are in the Davis Strait subpopulation.

Figure 1. From Iverson et al. 2014 (their Fig.1), “map of the study area.” Most of the study sites are within the Foxe Basin polar bear subpopulation region (see Fig. 2 below), although the Ungava Peninsula (E), Ungava Bay (F) and Frobisher Bay (C) sites are in the Davis Strait subpopulation.

Polar bears have always preyed on ground-nesting sea bird and goose eggs while onshore (see Kelsey Eliasson’s take on the situation around Churchill, at his PolarBearAlley blog). The issue in this case is whether the increase in predation can be unquestionably blamed on reduced sea ice cover and nutritionally-stressed bears – that is, predation increases that correlate with year-to-year sea ice changes and bears in poor condition found consuming bird eggs.

As I did for the “polar bears eat more caribou and snow geese than they used to” press release, I refused to take the PR or the news stories at face value and went to the published paper and its supplemental data (it’s open access, see it for yourself here).

What I see in this paper is a spurious sea ice correlation and no data on the condition of the few bears observed consuming eggs. There is also no mention of the fact that polar bear numbers have increased in part of the study area (Davis Strait) or that bears in Foxe Basin and southern Davis Strait have been found to be in very good condition and reproducing well (Rode et al. 2014; Peacock et al. 2013). See my analysis below and judge for yourself.

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Churchill polar bears eat more caribou and geese now than in 1968 because there are more caribou and geese, new research reveals

The press release (pdf here) issued by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) a few days ago, regarding several recent papers on polar bear consumption of terrestrial foods around Churchill, Manitoba (Western Hudson Bay), left a lot to be desired in terms of relaying accurate information.

Recent research on polar bear diets by Robert Rockwell and Linda Gormezano, it says, suggests that an increase in the consumption of caribou and snow geese since 1968 is a sign that the polar bears are nutritionally stressed due to recent sea ice changes in spring (blamed on global warming) but may be adapting by changing their summer/fall diet.

As the AMNH press release puts it:

polar bears in the warming Arctic are turning to alternate food sources.”

Figure 1. Polar bear feeding on a caribou carcass, taken July 26, 2010. This photo was included in one of the papers cited in the January 2014 press release (Gormezano and Rockwell 2013:3518) and was clearly taken from the air. The caption in the paper says simply, “a polar bear looks up from the recently killed caribou it was eating,” so the bear may not have killed the caribou – some other predator (wolf or grizzly) may have made the actual kill. The dark spots on the bear appear to be flies. Credit Copyright American Museum of Natural History/ R. Rockwell.

Figure 1. Polar bear feeding on a caribou carcass, taken July 26, 2010, from the air. This photo was included in virtually all media reports and in Gormezano and Rockwell (2013a:3518, Fig. 3). The caption in the paper says, “a polar bear looks up from the recently killed caribou it was eating,” implying the bear may not have actually killed the caribou – some other predator (wolf or grizzly) may have made the kill. The dark spots on the bear appear to be flies. Credit: Copyright American Museum of Natural History/R. Rockwell.

However, the AMNH press release fails to mention – as the papers it publicizes certainly do – that Western Hudson Bay populations of caribou and snow geese have increased exponentially since a similar polar bear diet study was done in 1968/69. In other words, there were hardly any caribou or geese around back in the late 60s — little wonder polar bears weren’t eating any.

While evidence of polar bears consuming caribou and geese in recent years is certainly an “increase” over late 1960s levels, that fact says more about the status of caribou and geese populations than it does about polar bears and global warming. Media outlets that quoted the press release verbatim, as many do these days (e.g. here, here, and here), missed this essential part of the story – and of course, so did their readers.

[one story picked up the goose population increase and another revealed the caribou population increase, but none that I saw caught both]

In addition, the AMNH press release makes this erroneous statement that was picked up by every media outlet I saw except one (either exactly as written or reworded slightly):

Climate warming is reducing the availability of their ice habitat, especially in the spring when polar bears gain most of their annual fat reserves by consuming seal pups before coming ashore for the summer.” [my bold]

This is flat-out wrong: sea ice declines have been minimal in spring The earliest breakup dates since 1991 for Western Hudson Bay, where this research was done, have been mid-June (according to the most recent study by Cherry et al. 2013) and for the last few years breakup has occurred in July. Spring in the Arctic is March-May; summer is June-August. This error appears to have come from authors, Robert Rockwell and Linda Gormezano, as I show below. Is this just sloppy writing or deliberate misinformation?

Overall, the press release and resulting media reports seem to be further examples of hyping global warming at the expense of the actual science involved and I have to agree with Andrew Derocher’s interpretation of the significance of terrestrial food items for polar bears. See what you think.
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Amstrup’s comment on his starving polar bear article and my response

Steve Amstrup has left a comment below his January 20, 2014 “starving polar bears’ article at The Conversation, which I discussed in my last post.

I’ve copied his comment below and the response to his comment that I left this morning, which is copied below his. See the entire comment sequence here.
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Amstrup repeats starving polar bear nonsense, features “Ursus bogus”

As if on cue just before an important polar bear announcement, Steven Amstrup, full time employee of Polar Bears International (PBI), is crying “starving polar bears” yet again, with a laughable twist.

Over at “The Conversation” (a university supported forum for academics), in a piece titled “Cold weather in the US no solace for starving polar bears,” Amstrup uses his adjunct affiliation at University of Wyoming to unleash a bit of unpaid advertising for PBI’s alarmist message (I put it this way because while Amstrup  does disclose his affiliation at PBI, he is more than just an affiliated member, he is their paid spokesperson).

Ironically, the headline photo (Fig. 1) is the notorious “Ursus bogus,” the photoshopped image used by the journal Science back in May 2010 to feature an article on the integrity of science, It was quickly exposed by Tim Blair at The Telegraph (also covered at WUWT), and the journal was obliged to acknowledge the error, replace the image and issue a correction.

In this case, commenter Brad Keyes at The Conversation defends the use of the “Ursus bogus” image with this astonishing statement [UPDATE Jan. 25/14: it has since transpired that this was almost certainly meant to be satire]:

The problem is, only sensational exaggeration makes the kind of story that will get politicians’—and readers’—attention. So, yes, climate scientists might exaggerate, but in today’s world, this is the only way to assure any political action and thus more federal financing to reduce the scientific uncertainty.

Figure 1. The headline photo from Steven Amstrup’s article at The Conversation. This infamous “Ursus bogus” image (for sale at IStock photos, listed under “Global warming images”), says “This image is a photoshop design. Polarbear, ice floe, ocean and sky are real, they were just not together in the way they are now.”

Figure 1. The headline photo from Steven Amstrup’s article at The Conversation. This infamous “Ursus bogus” image (for sale at IStock photos, listed under “Global warming images), says “This image is a photoshop design. Polarbear, ice floe, ocean and sky are real, they were just not together in the way they are now.”

However, we now know that Amstrup is crying wolf — summer sea ice has been declining despite a hiatus in global warming and unusual numbers of polar bears are not starving. He seems to think that if he keeps repeating his Chicken Little message (with nary a recent photo of an actual starving polar bear) he will convince more people to believe him and donate to PBI. It’s his job to do so of course, so he’s not likely to stop. [pardon my mixed metaphor – Amstrup, if you recall, prefers a Titanic metaphor]
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Polar bears in winter: starving bears and attacks on humans

Winter in the Arctic can be a tough time for polar bears. Between the cold, darkness and ever-thickening sea ice with fewer open leads, polar bears often find that seals are hard to come by.

So it should not be surprising to find out that polar bears are at their lowest body weight at the end of winter (Ramsay and Stirling 1988:613; Stirling 2002:68).

In other words, polar bears lose weight over the winter – not just during the ice-free summer period. That’s why the spring and early summer feeding period is so critical: gorging on young seals rebuilds the polar bears’ fat reserves lost over the winter and packs on even more fat to tide them over the late summer/early fall ice-free period.

Last fall, a potentially serious attack by a polar bear on a Churchill, Manitoba resident on Hallowe’en night (early hours of November 1) got a lot of attention worldwide. Some media outlets suggested that the bear involved in this attack was either starving or so hungry that he was driven to attack. However, this assertion was not supported by any evidence — we simply don’t know whether he was in poor condition or not. While the bear was undoubtedly leaner at the end of October than he was in July, that doesn’t mean he was actually ‘starving.’

So, here’s the question: given that polar bears have a tough time finding seals to eat during the dark and cold Arctic winter and are presumably at their hungriest then, do serious polar bear attacks on humans also happen in winter?
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