Tag Archives: summer ice minimum

Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea: August map

Here is the follow-up I promised to my post on the July track map for polar bears being followed by satellite in the Beaufort Sea by the US Geological Survey (USGS) – Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice. See that post for methods and other background on this topic, and some track maps from 2012.

The track map for August was posted on the USGS website on September 4th and is copied here below (Figure 1). The ice moved a bit further offshore during August but not nearly as far as it did in 2012. The ten bears from July were down to eight – their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died (the researchers don’t say which).

 Figure 1. “Movements of 8 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of August, 2013. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 8 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters [i.e., all are females]. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with Ice Analysis charts from 26 August, 2013. Ice Analysis charts are made available by the National Ice Center. The land cover is made available by Natural Earth. Click on the above image to enlarge.”[Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end August), while the other end of the string is their position in early August. The yellow dot is behind the purple dot, on shore; two of the bears present in July (see Fig. 2 below) are no longer being tracked - their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died. The researchers don’t say.]


Figure 1. “Movements of 8 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of August, 2013. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. All 8 of these bears have satellite collar transmitters [i.e., all are females]. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with Ice Analysis charts from 26 August, 2013. Ice Analysis charts are made available by the National Ice Center. The land cover is made available by Natural Earth. Click on the above image to enlarge.” [Note that the dots with the polar bear icons are the end points (end August), while the other end of the string is their position in early August. The yellow dot is behind the purple dot, on shore; two of the bears present in July (see Fig. 2 below) are no longer being tracked – their collars might have stopped working or fallen off (most likely), they might have left the area entirely (also possible) or they might have died. The researchers don’t say.]

So, of the eight polar bears still being followed by USGS researchers in August, three were on shore and five were on the ice. Only time will tell if the three females on shore are pregnant and preparing maternity dens for the winter, but this seems the likely reason they are not on the ice with the others.

I’ll post the track map for September when it is available in early October at the USGS website.

The map for July 2013 is below, for comparison: Continue reading

Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice

PB_male on ice_Regehr USFWS_March 2010_labeledTracking Beaufort Sea polar bears over the summer — what can it tell us about how important the position of summer sea ice relative to the shoreline in this region is to these bears? Do Beaufort Sea bears get stranded on shore like the polar bears in Davis Strait and Hudson Bay?

Polar bear biologist Eric Regehr (with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, or FWS) has a team working with US Geological Survey researchers (USGS) in the southern Beaufort tracking where adult female polar bears go throughout the year. This is part of on-going research in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea (see previous post here; see also Fish & Wildlife 2009; Polar Bear News 2010 and 2013; Rode and Regehr 2010, pdfs below; and just out, the “accepted” version of the Rode et al. paper discussed here, and announced in my last post here).

The researchers have been posting a summary map at the end of each month on the USGS website showing the tracks of the females they fitted with radio collars the previous spring — for 2013, and back to 2010. They can’t put collars on male bears because their necks are larger around than their heads, so a collar would just slip off.

I’ve posted the July 2013 track map below, which shows all ten bears out on the ice, and the previous month (June 2013) to compare it to (the August map should be out shortly). I’ve included a few maps from 2012 to allow you to compare this year’s results to the situation last summer.

The August tracks should be available after the Labour Day weekend – check back next week to see where the bears have been this month. I’ll post the map here or you can go to the USGS website directly. [UPDATE Sept 4, 2013: The August map is up, posted here.]

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Polar bears have not been harmed by sea ice declines in summer – the evidence

PB  logo colouredThe polar bear biologists and professional activists of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) continue to insist that since 1979 increasingly smaller amounts of Arctic sea ice left at the end of summer (the September ice minimum) have already caused harm to polar bears. They contend that global warming due to CO2 from fossil fuels (“climate warming” in their lexicon) is the cause of this decline in summer ice.

In a recent (2012) paper published in the journal Global Change Biology (“Effects of climate warming on polar bears: a review of the evidence”), long-time Canadian PBSG  members Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher (both of University of Alberta) summarized their position this way:

“Climate warming is causing unidirectional changes to annual patterns of sea ice distribution, structure, and freeze-up. We summarize evidence that documents how loss of sea ice, the primary habitat of polar bears (Ursus maritimus), negatively affects their long-term survival”

I’ve spent the last year examining their evidence of on-going harm, but in addition, I’ve looked at the evidence (much of it not mentioned in the Stirling and Derocher paper1) that polar bears have either not been harmed by less sea ice in summer or have thrived in spite of it.

This is a summary of my findings. I’ve provided links to my original essays on individual topics, which are fully referenced and illustrated. You are encouraged to consult them for complete details. This synopsis (pdf with links preserved, updated; pdf with links as footnotes, updated) complements and updates a previous summary, “Ten good reasons not to worry about polar bears” (pdf with links preserved; pdf with a foreword by Dr. Matt Ridley, with links as footnotes).

Update 8 September 2013: to include links to my post on the recently published Chukchi population report; updated pdfs have been added above.

Update 22 January 2014: added figure comparing March vs. September sea ice extent using the same scale, from NOAA’s “2014 Arctic Report Card,” discussed here.
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Biologists spreading misinformation: hybridization with grizzlies not due to polar bears moving inland

A paper published last week in the journal Science, written by a team of biologists and atmospheric scientists, expounds on a possible dire future for a range of Arctic animals. It’s called, “Ecological consequences of sea-ice decline” and surprisingly, polar bears are discussed only briefly.

However, with the inclusion of one short sentence, the paper manages to perpetuate misinformation on grizzly/polar bear hybridization that first appeared in a commentary essay three years ago in Nature  (Kelly et al. 2010)1. The Post et al. 2013 missive contains this astonishing statement (repeated by a Canadian Press news report):

Hybridization between polar bears and grizzly bears may be the result of increasing inland presence of polar bears as a result of a prolonged ice-free season.

Lead author of the paper, Professor of Biology Eric Post, is quoted extensively in the press release issued by his employer (Penn State University, pdf here). In it, Post re-states the above sentence in simpler terms, removing any doubt of its intended interpretation:

“… polar and grizzly bears already have been observed to have hybridized because polar bears now are spending more time on land, where they have contact with grizzlies.

Both statements are patently false. All recent hybridization events documented (2006-2013) occurred because a few male grizzlies traveled over the sea ice into polar bear territory and found themselves a polar bear female to impregnate (see news items here and here, Fig. 1 below). These events did not occur on land during the ice-free season (which is late summer/early fall), but on the sea ice in spring (March-May).

Grizzlies have been documented wandering over the sea ice of the western Arctic since at least 1885 (Doupe et al. 2007; Fig. 2, below) and the presence in this region of hybrid grizzly/polar bear offspring is not an indicator of declining summer sea ice, whether due to global warming or natural causes, or some combination thereof.

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Baffin Bay-Davis Strait ice concentration comparison – why use the “summer mean”?

I’ve been in the process of looking at the status of polar bears in the Baffin Bay region, which lies to the north of Davis Strait (Fig. 1), but a related issue caught my attention that I think deserves discussion.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Note that Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay are all similar in that they become ice-free by early fall (the September minimum) or before.

Figure 1. Polar bear subpopulations defined by the Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG). Note that Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay are all similar in that they become ice-free by early fall (the September minimum) or even before.

Recall that in a recent post on the Beaufort Sea ice extent comparison offered by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) here, I commented:

What puzzled me was why they featured only the last 7 years when satellite data go back to at least 1979. Is there something in that data they don’t want us to see?”

Something similar struck me about the analysis of sea ice in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait conducted by polar bear researchers Karyn Rode and colleagues (Rode et al. 2012). In their comparison of body condition (relative fatness) of bears in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay (see previous post here), they introduced an entirely new sea ice metric – “mean daily summer sea ice concentration,” defined as the mean of values between May 15 and October 15 each year based on ice charts provided by the Canadian Ice Service.

Why invent a metric that has never been used (as far as I know) for analysis of polar bear health, survival or success?

Why not use breakup dates, as has been done for decades for subpopulations in Hudson Bay (e.g. Cherry et al. 2013), where the ice also disappears in late summer?

Is there something in the ice data for Baffin Bay and Davis Strait that Rode and colleagues don’t want us to see?

Since I had already made a composite of Cryosphere Today ice maps at July 12 for my discussion of the Chukchi/Beaufort NSIDC analysis mentioned above, it was relatively easy to look at what was going on in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait on that date in mid-summer. Keep in mind that ice extent and concentration at July 12 records the state of polar bear habitat prior to the late summer decline in sea ice that occurs every year.

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Chukchi/Bering Sea ringed seals doing better despite declines in ice and snow: new study

Ringed seal pup in snow cave

Previously, I highlighted new research results that showed, contrary to expectations, polar bears in the Chukchi Sea subpopulation are doing better – despite declines in extent of September sea ice – since the 1970s. So it might not come as much of a surprise to find that the same is true for the primary prey of polar bears in the Chukchi and Bering Seas, Arctic ringed seals (Phoca hispida hispida).

Surprisingly, less than 6 months after Arctic ringed seals were placed on the American list of “threatened” species (under the ESA, see previous post here), actual research in Alaska has shown that declines in sea ice have proven better for ringed seals, not worse.

At a presentation given at the Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium in March (Anchorage, Alaska) [program and links to pdfs here] Justin Crawford, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) presented the results of ringed seal research conducted by himself and fellow ADF&G biologist Lori Quakenbush in the Chukchi and Bering Seas (posted online by the event organizers, see references below).

As for polar bears, the Crawford and Quakenbush presentation provides some very interesting details on the status of Chukchi and Bering Sea ringed seals over the last 40 years, and contains some mighty “inconvenient” conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

I’ve summarized these details and conclusions below in point form, with a map.
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Chukchi polar bear status contradicts the “message” – new details

Previously, I summarized preliminary results of polar bear research in the Chukchi Sea undertaken between 2008 and 2011 by US Fish & Wildlife biologist Eric Regehr and US Geological Survey researcher Karyn Rode. At the time, a peer-reviewed paper on this study was promised shortly.

It now appears this paper is indeed on the way. I’m sure of that because a few weeks ago, I came across a conference presentation given by Karyn Rode that is a summary of the upcoming Chukchi research paper. The title of both presentation and ‘in review’ paper is:

“Variation in the response of an Arctic top predator experiencing habitat loss: feeding and reproductive ecology of two polar bear populations.

Rode’s slide presentation (given at the annual Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium at the end of March, in Anchorage, Alaska) was posted online by the symposium organizers. It provides some very interesting details on the status of Chukchi Sea bears compared to bears in the Southern Beaufort, and contains some mighty “inconvenient” conclusions that should raise some eyebrows.

I’ve summarized these details and conclusions below in point form, below the maps.

Figure 1. Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (from Wikipedia), upper. ‘Chukchi Sea’ polar bears are shared between the USA and Russia; ‘Southern Beaufort’ bears are shared between the US and Canada, lower (from PBSG, with labels added). Pink dots are the subpopulations featured in the Rode et al. presentation and upcoming paper.

Figure 1. Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (from Wikipedia), upper. ‘Chukchi Sea’ polar bears are shared between the USA and Russia; ‘Southern Beaufort’ bears are shared between the US and Canada, lower (from PBSG, with labels added). Pink dots are the subpopulations featured in the Rode et al. presentation and upcoming paper.

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Great polar bear red herring in the Southern Beaufort

Red herring iconWe know that thick-ice springs occurred in 1974, 1975, 1986, 1992, 2004, and 2005 in the former ‘Eastern Beaufort’ – now the southern portion of the ‘Northern Beaufort’ and the eastern portion of the ‘Southern Beaufort.’ We know that these severe spring ice conditions negatively impacted both polar bears and ringed seals in this region every decade since the 1960s because the effects have been documented by numerous studies conducted in April through May for polar bears (Amstrup et al. 2006; Cherry et al. 2009; Pilfold et al. 2012; Stirling 2002; Stirling and Lunn 1997; Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling et al. 1993; Stirling et al. 2008) and in June and July for ringed seals (Harwood et al. 2012; Smith 1987), see previous posts here, here, and here.

For example, even though Ian Stirling and colleagues argued in their 2008 paper that the thick spring ice conditions in 2004, 2005 and 2006 (but not those in previous decades) were caused by storms initiated or intensified by greater amounts of open water in previous summers, they did not deny that the thick-ice springs occurred. They stated quite clearly that:

The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s each experienced a two- to three-year decline in seal productivity in the eastern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf, associated with heavy ice conditions, around mid-decade. Each was followed by a decline in polar bear reproduction and condition, after which both seal and bear populations recovered (Smith, 1987; Harwood et al., 2000; Stirling, 2002). The beginning of each of those three periods was associated with heavy ice conditions through the winter before the reproductive decline of the seals, followed by a late spring breakup.” [my bold]

So, I have to say, I was shocked but not surprised to find that in the more recent scientific literature, the phenomenon of thick-ice springs every decade in Southern and Northern Beaufort has been deliberately ‘disappeared.’ 

Not surprised because I suspected it had happened — this issue was a feature of the Stirling and Derocher (2012) paper from late last year which was the topic of my very first blog post, “Cooling the polar bear spin.

However, I think it is important to document how the transmogrification of sea ice effects on polar bears was managed in the scientific literature so that everyone can see exactly what has been done. In a truly astonishing move for what is supposed to be a field of science, thick-ice springs have been effectively replaced by an open-water red herring as the scourge of Southern Beaufort polar bears.

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Polar bear-sea ice relationships: what biologists knew in ’72

1972 – a bit over 40 years ago. Seven years before we had reliable sea ice extent data from satellites and the year before the international agreement was signed by Arctic nations to protect polar bears from overhunting.

In 1972, a bear biologist by the name of Jack Lentfer was working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, stationed at the Naval Arctic Research Lab in Barrow. Lentfer was one of the founding delegates of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, where he represented US interests until 1981.

In the proceedings of the 1972 PBSG meeting (Lentfer 1972a), Lentfer stated the following in his report to the group:

“Long term warming and cooling trends occur in the Arctic and probably affect polar bear distribution and numbers. Climatic trends should be considered when assessing bear distributions and population data on a long term basis.” [my bold]

Warming and cooling, not just warming.

He also had a paper published that year (Lentfer 1972b), entitled “Polar bear: Sea ice relationships.” Forty years on, I thought it was worth having a look at what Lentfer told his fellow polar bear biologist colleagues back then. Continue reading

Polar bears of W. Hudson Bay came ashore in 2009 as late as in 1992

It’s like pulling teeth, getting up-to-date information on breakup dates of Hudson Bay sea ice. You’d think with the importance of this seasonal event to the polar bears of Hudson Bay (some of which, we’re told, face the most perilous future of all polar bears worldwide), we’d get a press release every summer alerting us to the precise date of sea ice breakup and the subsequent arrival of the bears onshore. I’m thinking of something similar to the dispatches we get from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) when Arctic sea ice reaches its yearly maximum (e.g. March 2012) and its yearly minimum extent (e.g. September 2012).

Sadly, this is not the case.

So I was intrigued to see that a new paper just out in the Journal of Animal Ecology, by Seth Cherry (a Ph.D. student of Andrew Derocher) and colleagues, dealt with Hudson Bay breakup dates. I was hoping for some data beyond 2007, which has been the limit of information provided so far by polar bear biologists (see previous posts here and here). Unfortunately, because the methods for determining breakup dates in this paper are so different from previous ones (more detail below), the new data (1991-2009) can’t be compared to earlier studies that go back to 1979. But there is some good news.

Although you wouldn’t know it by the author’s conclusion, the results of the study confirm for this region my previously stated contention that polar bears need spring and early summer ice (March through June) for gorging on young, fat seals and documented declines in sea ice have rarely impinged on that critical feeding period – by which I meant, bears have seldom, if ever, been forced off the ice of Hudson Bay as early as June.

The study also confirms that there has not been any kind of spectacular retreat of sea ice breakup dates – coming earlier and earlier in the season – over the last 19 years and that polar bears did not arrive on shore in 2009 until very late – approximately 22 August – the same date they came ashore in 1992.

Below are two figures from the paper: one (the map) necessary to understand the new “Cherry method” of calculating breakup dates for Hudson Bay (no disrespect intended) and the other (the graph), which presents the data collected. The table with my converted breakup dates is below them. A few quotes from the study and some comments on it follows.

UPDATE (March 21 2013; 6:12 PM PST). A typo in the table has been fixed (2001 is Jun 21 not Jul 21) and the post amended accordingly.
UPDATE 2 (July 7, 2013) The Cherry et al. paper is now in print, the references have been updated accordingly.

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