Tag Archives: summer ice minimum

Polar bear distribution shows they are limited by winter ice extent

I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again now that the sea ice in the Arctic is approaching its seasonal maximum extent and thickness: polar bears are limited by winter sea ice extent (Fig.1), not by the minimum extent of ice in the summer. Otherwise, their distribution would resemble the summer sea ice minimum (Fig. 2), not the winter maximum.

Despite the hue and cry about “declining sea ice,” polar bears are still as well distributed throughout their available winter habitat as they were in 1979, when detailed sea ice records began – see the map below. See further details on polar bear distribution here.

Figure 1. Polar bear distribution map (adapted from the one provided by the PBSG) compared to sea ice concentration at Feb 28 (at or near the seasonal maximum extent) 1979 and 2013. I can’t see a difference – can you see a difference? The only place there is consistently sea ice in winter but not polar bears is the Sea of Okhotsk, but there is no evidence that polar bears have ever lived there despite the presence of seals. Click to enlarge

Figure 1. Polar bear distribution map (adapted from the one provided by the PBSG) compared to sea ice concentration at Feb 28 (at or near the seasonal maximum extent) 1979 and 2013. I can’t see a difference – can you see a difference? The only place there is consistently sea ice in winter but not polar bears is the Sea of Okhotsk, but there is no evidence that polar bears have ever lived there despite the presence of seals. Click to enlarge

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Polar bears are distributed throughout their available habitat

All Arctic sea ice habitats that are currently suitable for polar bears have polar bears living in them 1 – even the southern-most regions of Hudson Bay that are well below the Arctic Circle (see previous post on polar bear numbers here).

Have a look at the maps below and see how well the current maximum extent of sea ice correlates with the present range of polar bears around the Arctic.

Fig. 1. Sea ice extent at April 25, 2012, from NSIDC (the winter maximum). Note that although there is sea ice in the Sea of Okhotsk (top right of the map), polar bears do not currently live there nor is there any evidence they ever did1.
Compare to the polar bear’s official range below.

Fig. 2. The global range of the polar bear, showing the 19 regional subpopulations. Map from Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG), with a few extra labels added.

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Record low sea ice extent and what it means for polar bears…

On Aug. 27, 2012 sea ice extent dipped below the yearly minimum extent reached in 2007.

The sea ice at this point, a five-day average, was 4.1 million km squared and the lowest point reached since satellite records began in 1979. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) thought it was important enough to issue a press release.

There are sure to be more than a few media-hungry folks who will be moaning about the fate of the poor polar bears because of this report. Before people get too hysterical, a bit of rational perspective might be helpful.

Keep in mind that 4.1 m sq. km (Fig. 5) is about the size of Greenland (2.166 m km2) plus Mexico (1.972 m km2), or about the size of India (3.287 m km2) plus Pakistan (0.809 m km2), figures from Wikipedia.

It may be a ‘record’ low, but it’s still a lot of ice: 4.1 m km2 is not anywhere close to an ‘ice-free’ Arctic!

Arctic sea ice melts – or gets pushed out of the Arctic and then melts – every year, leaving various amounts behind. The ice lingering at mid-September adds to next year’s ‘multiyear’ ice.

The maximum extent is usually reached mid-to-late March. Have a look at how this ‘low extent’ developed from the March maximum this year. Even if you’ve looked at some of these maps, you may not have looked at them one after the other. I’ll compare these to the fall maps for 2007, after the Sept. minimum and discuss these in relation to polar bear habitat. Contineu reading