Tag Archives: summer sea ice

USGS ‘treadmill’ paper repeats bogus claim that ice loss harmed polar bears

The newest polar bear science paper making the rounds courtesy the US Geological Survey, is a perfect example of a statistically-significant result with no biological significance. While the results are rather lame, the paper is dangerous because it repeats the disingenuous claim (see Crockford 2017) that Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear numbers declined in recent years due to summer sea ice loss.

polar_bear_rubble_ice_Mike Lockhart USGS_8 April 2011

The USGS authors (Durner et al. 2017) know this harm-from-summer-ice-loss assertion is not true for the Southern Beaufort subpopulation but the more papers they can get into print that say so, the more likely it will be believed — and the less likely readers will check older literature that documents the recent decline in polar bear numbers was due to a three year period (2004-2006) when thick ice conditions in spring made seal hunting a challenge, a repeat of a well-known phenomenon (e.g. Stirling et al. 1980; Stirling 2002) unique to this region that has been documented since the 1960s.

The Durner paper (USGS press releaseIncreased Sea Ice Drift Puts Polar Bears on Faster Moving Treadmill” published online 6 June ahead of print) spins the research results as potentially significant bad news but in so doing reveals how desperate they have become to make the public and their biology colleagues believe that Southern Beaufort polar bears, among others, are being negatively affected by summer sea ice loss (as per Stirling and Derocher 2012).

Durner, G.M., Douglas, D.C., Albeke, S.E., Whiteman, J.P., Amstrup, S.C., Richardson, E., Wilson, R.R. and Ben-David, M. 2017. Increased Arctic sea ice drift alters adult female polar bear movements and energetics. Global Change Biology. DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13746 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.13746/abstract [paywalled]

In fact, the Durner et al. paper does not document any harm to polar bears from the proposed ‘treadmill’ effect of more rapidly moving ice for the period 1999-2013 compared to 1987-1998, but instead uses models to suggest bears might have to eat one to three more seals per year to compensate for the extra energy needed to walk against the moving ice. That’s right: perhaps only 1 more seal per year out of the 50 or so they would usually consume (see Stirling and Øritsland 1995). In my opinion, that’s a pretty lame result for what one of the co-authors described as an immense amount of work.

News outlets have essentially used the USGS press release as a click-bait lede for another round of Trump-bashing with respect to the Paris climate change agreement, see here and here: the stories are hardly about polar bears at all. And predictably, polar bear activist and co-author Steven Amstrup (paid spokesperson for Polar Bears International, famous for their “Save Our Sea Ice” campaign) appears to be using the same approach: an up-coming call-in talk radio program at NPR’s Anchorage affiliate KSKA for Tuesday 13 June at 10:00 (Alaska time, see “Talk of Alaska”) is being billed as a discussion of “polar bears, climate change, and the Paris Accord” (h/t AK geologist). Continue reading

Polar bear tragedy porn dressed up as science features in new BBC Earth video

This new effort by the BBC would make the PR department of the Center for Biological Diversity proud, with it’s prominent use of animal tragedy porn pretending to be science. In contrast, the actual science shows something quite different: though summer sea ice since 2007 has declined to levels not predicted until 2040-2070, there has been virtually no negative impact on polar bear health or survival, a result no one predicted back in 2005.

bbc-video-15-sept-2016-screencap-breaking-ice-02

Bizarrely entitled  A 3-million-year ice age is coming to an end (15 September 2016), this slick video pretends it’s promoting the recently released paper by Harry Stern and Kristen Laidre (2016) that got a lot of media attention last week (see here and here).

Who exactly suggested the profound prophesy stated in their chosen title, the BBC Earth folks don’t say: the Stern and Laidre paper certainly does not. And the use of a bear that appears to drown before our eyes is Hollywood-style emotional manipulation. Note the careful use of “might” (above) and “could” (below).

bbc-video-15-sept-2016-screencap-breaking-ice-01

Watch the videos below and weep not for the plight of the polar bear, but for the downfall of science journalism. Continue reading

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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Specialists mum on low Chukchi Sea polar bear habitat this summer and fall

You may or may not have noticed that even though Chukchi Sea ice coverage has been way below average this melt season, there has been no hue-and-cry about poor suffering Chukchi polar bears. That’s because polar bear biologist’s own research has shown that the health and survival of these bears has not been negatively impacted by low summer sea ice. There may be threats from poaching in Russia, but not lack of summer sea ice.

Chukchi vs Beaufort ice at 29 Oct 2015_polarbearscience

As of this date, developing sea ice is only just approaching Wrangel Island, a major polar bear denning region in the Chukchi Sea, see maps below (Ovsyanikov 2006).

Yet, polar bear specialists insist that neighbouring Beaufort Sea bears – who endure a much shorter open-water season – are in peril of extinction because of scarce summer sea ice.
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Alarm over future summer polar bear habitat disguises how good conditions are right now

Despite the public outcry last week over future polar bear survival, the polar-bears-are-doomed crowd can’t hide the fact that this year, spring sea ice habitat for polar bears worldwide has been excellent.

A polar bear walks on the Arctic Ocean ice Aug. 21, 2009.

This year on 19 July, for example, Hudson Bay had greater than 150,000 square km more sea ice than there was in 2009 on that date (526.2 vs. 368.5 mkm2)(1992 was a particularly cold year and most bears left the ice as late in 2009 as they did in 1992).1 Conditions have also been excellent for pregnant females around Svalbard – Norwegian polar bear researchers recently reported a good crop of cubs this spring.

Hudson Bay breakup July 20 2015_CIS

Worldwide, there was exactly the same amount of Arctic sea ice present on 18 July 2015 as there was back in 2006 (Day 199) – 8.4 mkm2. By 19 July (day 200), 2015 had more ice than 2006 (8.4 mkm2 vs. 8.3).

All this means that recent summer ice melt has not impinged on the spring feeding period that is so critically important for polar bears. So much ice left in early summer means there was lots of sea ice in the spring (April-June), even in the Southern Beaufort Sea.

The only region with sea ice coverage well below the last five years is the Chukchi Sea (see plots below, click to enlarge). So why aren’t we hearing the-sky-is-falling stories about Chukchi bears? Because biologist have already demonstrated that polar bears in the Chukchi do very well even with no summer sea ice.
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Summer sea ice melt and polar bear maternity dens

The yearly sea ice minimum extent is almost upon us, which has recently been the seasonal signal for excitable biologists and their activist groupies to resume their breathless rants about what sea ice loss could mean for polar bears.

Polar bear den_CreditUSFWS_labeled

Never mind that the summer minimum extent reached in September, no matter how low it goes, is pretty much irrelevant to polar bear health and survival. As I’ve discussed before, what’s really important is the presence of not-too-thick ice during the spring, so they can catch lots of young seals and put on lots of fat.

But to a lesser degree, the extent at mid-to-late summer is important because this is when pregnant females that prefer to make their maternity dens on shore are looking for good places to spend the winter.

So the topic for today is this: how much does the extent of ice at the height of summer dictate where polar bear females make their winter dens?
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Eat, wash up, repeat; eat, wash up, repeat…polar bears do it too!

Ah, that never-ending treadmill of meal preparation and cleanup. You might be surprised to find out that polar bears do it too.

Figure 1. How do polar bears look so clean most of the time when they get this bloody on a regular basis? They wash up! [This picture is not from Stirling’s paper].

Figure 1. How do polar bears look so clean most of the time when they get this bloody on a regular basis? They wash up!

I found an interesting description of polar bears washing during and after feeding, by a young Ian Stirling in one of his earliest published polar bear papers (Stirling 1974). At the time, he was observing polar bears on southwest Devon Island (74°43′ N; 91°10′ W, see Fig. 2 below) between 24 July and 8 August 1973. Even today, there’s ice for hunting seals in mid-to-late-summer in that part of Canada (Fig. 3).
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