Tag Archives: Stirling

Beaufort Sea polynyas open two weeks before 1975 – open water is good news for polar bears

With masses of very thick, multiyear ice off Alaska this spring, the developing polynyas (open water) at either end of the Beaufort Sea are providing essential polar bear hunting habitat.

SB polynyas on ice thickness map 14 May 2015_PolarBearScience

Patches of open water in the Beaufort Sea are naturally recurring phenomena. This year we have two excellent examples, shown by the yellow arrows in the sea ice thickness map above (from the Naval Research Laboratory).

The eastern-most polynya forms in the Canadian portion of the Beaufort most years in the spring. This open water feature is so common it has a name – the Cape Bathurst polynya. Last year, there wasn’t an obvious polynya there until sometime in June, but in 1975, a patch of open water almost as large (or larger) as this year’s had developed by the end of May (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Cape Bathurst polynya at 28 May 1975 (Smith and Rigby 1981: Fig. 14h), with the extent probably underestimated, and the polynya this year at 14 May (Canadian Ice Service). Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Cape Bathurst polynya at 28 May 1975 (Smith and Rigby 1981:Fig. 14h) and the polynya this year at 14 May (Canadian Ice Service). See discussion in the text below about the relative sizes. Click to enlarge.

According to the experts that study them, the timing and extent of the polynya formation depends on wind (Dunbar 1981:29), not temperature. This means that this spring’s polynya formation in the eastern Beaufort isn’t a symptom of global warming, it isn’t missing polar bear habitat,” and it isn’t a sign of early sea ice breakup.

In fact, the Cape Bathurst polynya is a critical place for ringed seals and bearded seals to congregate in spring. Therefore, this is where many Southern Beaufort polar bears go to hunt. The presence of the polynya is especially crucial in years like this one, when very thick sea ice covers most of the Beaufort Sea.  Continue reading

Polar bear biologists try – again – to blame S. Beaufort thick spring ice on global warming

The trouble is, sea ice researchers and atmospheric scientists have not drawn that conclusion, despite what a new paper by Pilfold and colleagues imply. It shows just what lengths desperate IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group  (PBSG) biologists will go to in order to link the recent decline of Southern Beaufort bear numbers to global warming while ignoring similar past declines.

Beaufort Sea pressure ridges_Spring 1949 wikipedia sm

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Polar bears out on the sea ice eat few seals in summer and early fall

We hear endlessly about the polar bears ‘forced’ to go without food for months because of receding summer sea ice — what about all the bears that stay out on the ice over the summer? Presumably, those bears keep hunting for seals – but how many do they actually catch?

Polar Bear Breaks Ice

[Update 9 February 2015: Just to be clear, this post is based on the facts available in the peer reviewed literature — if you think I have missed something, let me know via the “Contact us” page above]
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Faux polar bear figures – my editorial in the National Post

Published in the Business section (Financial Post “Comments”) of the National Post this morning:

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images [NP story]

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images [from original NP essay]

“Faux polar bear figures” [not my choice of title, by the way]

In which I conclude:

We admire polar bear biologists for their professional dedication to this iconic species, and rightly so. However, while it’s understandable that polar bear biologists are conservation-minded, the public and policy makers need them to be scientists first and advocates for polar bear protection second. Polar bears are currently doing well – data shenanigans to keep them classified as “threatened” undermine the whole point of doing science.”

I have written extensively about the Southern Beaufort issue — below are links to some of these, which have links to the rest. References are included in these individual posts. Contact me if there is a reference you cannot find: Continue reading

W Hudson Bay polar bear mark-recapture study report 2013 – at last

I have finally secured a copy of the 2013 Western Hudson Bay mark-recapture study produced by Environment Canada.

The pertinent figure is below: as you can see, there was no declining trend in Western Hudson Bay polar bears between 2000 and 2011. Click to enlarge.

WH EC Polar Bear Demography report Lunn 26 Nov 2013 Final _Fig 8

I have relatives visiting so I don’t have time to do an in-depth summary but the report’s opening “Summary” is copied below and a pdf provided. More later when I have had time to look at it more closely. Background on the issue here.

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Public misled about W Hudson Bay bears since November 2013

Leading polar bear biologists knew by November 2013 that mark-recapture studies showed the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation had not changed appreciably since 2004 but none said so. This includes Steven Amstrup and Ian Stirling at Polar Bears International, Andrew Derocher (University of Alberta), and Nick Lunn (Canadian Wildlife Service), all of whom are (or have been) extensively involved in Western Hudson Bay polar bear research and have made recent statements to the media on this topic.

Polar_Bear_2004-11-15_Wapusk Nat Park_Wikipedia

More details have emerged about the status of Western Hudson Bay (WHB) polar bears (reported a few days ago here), reported this morning in NunatsiaqOnline, excerpts below.

The story reveals that there are two Canadian Wildlife Service (Environment Canada) reports containing population estimates of Western Hudson Bay polar bears – one produced in 2011 and another in November 2013 (reversing the 2011 conclusion) – that have not been made public.

[In contrast, Nunavut Government reports on their 2011 population estimate, based on aerial surveys, were made public in both draft and final report formats (and have since been peer-reviewed and published)]

The conclusion of the 2013 report, quoted in this mornings article, suggests that some of our most vocal polar bear specialists have been misleading the public about the status of the Western Hudson Bay population for the last year.
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S Beaufort polar bears largely recovered from known 2004-2006 decline, says new study

A bit more good news about polar bear populations, this time from an abundance study in the Southern Beaufort Sea. A paper released yesterday showed a 25-50% decline in population size took place between 2004 and 2006 (larger than previously calculated). However, by 2010 the population had rebounded substantially (although not to previous levels).

All the media headlines (e.g. The Guardian) have followed the press release lead and focused on the extent of the decline. However, it’s the recovery portion of the study that’s the real news, as it’s based on new data. Such a recovery is similar to one documented in the late 1970s after a significant decline occurred in 1974-1976 that was caused by thick spring ice conditions.

Polar bear with collar and tag_USGS_labeled

The title of the new paper by Jeffery Bromaghin and a string of polar bear biologists and modeling specialists (including all the big guns: Stirling, Derocher, Regehr, and Amstrup) is “Polar bear population dynamics in the southern Beaufort Sea during a period of sea ice decline.” However, the study did not find any correlation of population decline with ice conditions. They did not find any correlation with ice conditions because they did not include spring ice thickness in their models – they only considered summer ice conditions.

I find this very odd, since previous instances of this phenomenon, which have occurred every 10 years or so since the 1960s, have all been associated with thick spring ice conditions (the 1974-76 and 2004-2006 events were the worst). [Another incident may have occurred this spring (April 2014) but has not been confirmed].

Whoever wrote the press release for this paper tried hard to suggest the cause of the 2004-2006 event might have been “thin” winter ice caused by global warming that was later deformed into thick spring ice, an absurd excuse that has been tried before (discussed here). If so, what caused the 1974-1976 event?

It seems rather unscientific as well as implausible to even try to blame this recent phenomenon on global warming. However, neither the authors of the paper or the press release writers seemed to want to admit that 2-3 years of thick ice development in the Southern Beaufort could have been the cause of the population decline in 2004 (as for all of the previous events). No, that wouldn’t do, not in the age of global warming.

So, we are left with this equally absurd conclusion from the author:

The low survival may have been caused by a combination of factors that could be difficult to unravel,” said Bromaghin, “and why survival improved at the end of the study is unknown.

I’ve summarized the paper to the best of my understanding (there was a lot of model-speak to wade through), leaving out the prophesies of extinction, which in my opinion don’t add anything.

UPDATE November 19, 2014: Don’t miss my follow-up post, with some startling new information, Polar bear researchers knew S. Beaufort population continued to increase up to 2012
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Churchill problem bears and early breakup dates in WHB: The 1983 & 2004 anomalies

In this part of my critique of Stirling and Parkinson (2006), regarding breakup dates in Western Hudson Bay (see Part I here), I will show that these authors also left out critical data.

Figure 1. A bear is transported to Churchill’s polar bear holding facility, from a 2011 Huffington Post article “Polar Bear Prison.”

Figure 1. A bear is transported to Churchill’s polar bear holding facility, from a 2011 Huffington Post article “Polar Bear Prison.”

Their correlation between number of problem bears in Churchill and breakup dates for WHB worked because some very inconvenient data were simply left out: problem bear data for 1983 and 2004.

Inclusion of that information would have shown 1983 and 2004 were two of the worst years for polar bear problems in recent history despite being late breakup years (1983 also had the last human fatality from a polar bear attack). They could have explained why they did not use the data but they did not — they simply left it out.

Amazingly, this work is being touted as “evidence” that global warming is harming Western Hudson Bay polar bears.
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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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Natural selection helps polar bears adapt to sea ice variability – which means some bears die

Evolution is not just for the long-term – natural selection also goes on over short time periods. In the case of polar bears, this adaptation is almost certainly critical for its long-term survival.

Hudson Bay female with cub_Wapusk_Thorsten Milse_Gov CA

Hudson Bay female with cub Wapusk National Park, Thorsten Milse, Government of Canada

Not all polar bears are identical — that is the reality that allows natural selection to operate.

I will argue that early breakup years in Western Hudson Bay weed out individual polar bears that do not have the physiological or behavioral characteristics necessary to be useful members of the population – and that this is a good thing for the entire population.

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