Tag Archives: Svalbard

Svalbard polar bear data 2016 through 2018 shows no impact of low ice years

Last week, the Norwegian Polar Institute updated their online data collected for the Svalbard area to include 2017 and 2018 — fall sea ice data and spring polar bear data. Older data for comparison go back to 1993 for polar bears and 1979 for sea ice, showing little to no impact of the reduced ice present since 2016 in late spring through fall.

Svalbard polar bear_NP015991-isbjorn-JA

Here’s what the introduction says, in part [my bold]:

“…The polar bear habitat is changing rapidly, and the Polar Basin could be ice-free in summer within a few years. Gaining access to preferred denning areas and their favourite prey, ringed seals, depends on good sea ice conditions at the right time and place. The population probably increased considerably during the years after hunting was banned in 1973, and new knowledge indicates that the population hasn’t been reduced the last 10-15 years, in spite of a large reduction in available sea ice in the same period.”

See Aars et al. 2017 for details on the 2015 Svalbard polar bear population count, keeping in mind that the subpopulation region is called “Barents Sea” for a reason: only a few hundred individuals currently stick close to Svalbard year round while most Barents Sea bears inhabit the pack ice around Franz Josef Land to the east (Aars et al. 2009; Crockford 2017, 2018).
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Polar bear numbers, margins of error, & consequences for conservation status

Large margins of error in polar bear population estimates means the conservation status threshold of a 30% decline (real or predicted) used by the US Endangered Species Act and the IUCN Red List is probably not valid for this species.

Polar_Bear_Biologist_USFWS_working_with_a_Bear_Oct 24 2001 Amstrup photo

Several recent subpopulation estimates have shown an increase between one estimate and another of greater than 30% yet deemed not to be statistically significant due to large margins of error. How can such estimates be used to assess whether population numbers have declined enough to warrant IUCN Red List or ESA protection?

What do polar bear population numbers mean for conservation status, if anything?

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Polar bear habitat update early spring 2018

Spring in the Arctic is April-June (Pilfold et al. 2015). As late April is the peak of this critical spring feeding period for most polar bear populations, this is when sea ice conditions are also critical. This year, as has been true since 1979, that sea ice coverage is abundant across the Arctic for seals that are giving birth and mating at this time as well as for polar bears busy feeding on young seals and mating.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Alaska Katovik Regehr photo_April 29, 2005_sm labeled

Below is a chart of sea ice at 25 April 2018, showing sea ice in all PBSG polar bear subpopulation regions:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 April 25

Some Arctic subregions below, in detail. Continue reading

Less Svalbard polar bear habitat during the early Holocene than now

Svalbard in the western Barents Sea has recently had less sea ice extent than it had in the 1980s, especially in the west and north, but this is not unprecedented.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

New evidence from clams and mussels with temperature-sensitive habitat requirements confirm that warmer temperatures and less sea ice than today existed during the early Holocene period about 10.2–9.2 thousand years ago and between 8.2 and 6.0 thousand years ago (based on radio carbon dates) around Svalbard. Barents Sea polar bears almost certainly survived those previous low-ice periods, as they are doing today, by staying close to the Franz Josef Land Archipelago in the eastern half of the region where sea ice is more persistent.

As this sea ice chart for 18 April 2018 shows, ice this month has been virtually absent from the west and north coasts of the Svalbard Archipelago, while Franz Josef Land to the east is surrounded by highly concentrated pack and land-fast ice.

Barents Sea ice 2018 April 18 NIS

From a new paper by Jan Mangerud and John Svendsen (2018) [my bold]:

Svalbard, located between 74° and 81°N, is the warmest place on Earth at this latitude (Drange et al., 2013). This is because of the North Atlantic Current and large-scale atmospheric circulation which transport warm water and air masses from lower latitudes northwards across the Atlantic and along the coast of Norway to Svalbard (Figure 1). Yet, during the Holocene Thermal Maximum, the climate of Svalbard was considerably warmer than at present.

The transition from Younger Dryas cold to Holocene Thermal Maximum warm conditions took place very rapidly, according to records from nearby Greenland (Taylor et al. 1997), warming in “steps” of about five years each over a period of about 40 years. This was at least as fast, if not faster than, recent Arctic warming between the 1980s and 2015. And since polar bears of the Barents Sea and adjacent Arctic areas appear to have survived this change to Holocence Thermal Maximum conditions, it challenges the notion that recent warming has been (or will be) too fast to allow polar bears to survive without huge changes in their present distribution (Amstrup et al. 2007).
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Histrionics over Arctic temperatures & sea ice extent: implications for polar bears

Panic over Arctic temperatures got smeared across news networks last week, so I think a bit of perspective is in order, including an assessment of what this means for polar bears and their prey (because some of the hysteria is being amplified from that corner).

The region causing all the kerfuffle is at the northernmost tip of Greenland (see map below), where there is a weather station at Cape Morris Jesup. Next-nearest stations are at Alert, Canada (to the west) and Longyearbyen, Svalbard (Norway, to the east).

Cape Morris Jesup location Greenland_Google map

Arctic temps spike over 30 degrees in the midst of winter (The Weathern Network, Friday, February 23, 2018) included the tweet below, showing a fracture of sea ice north of Greenland so transient that it does not show up on daily sea ice maps:

“Along with those spikes in temperature, Lars Kaleschke’s tweet, above, also shows the large rift in the sea ice that opened up just north of Cape Morris Jesup, at the same time. Kaleschke is a professor of sea ice remote sensing at the Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability, at the University of Hamburg, in Germany.

Summary: Temperature and sea ice “abberations” in northern Greenland are transient phenomena that have clearly happened before (e.g. 2011) without major consequences except perhaps through impacts on eastern Arctic and subArctic weather conditions (including the UK).

Lack of sea ice north of Svalbard in the Barents Sea occuried last year and in 2012 in Februrary. But by mid-to-late March, when seal are beginning to give birth on the ice and polar bears are busy hunting them, ice had again covered the region. This year is likely to be the same. However, we won’t know until the end of March or ealry April if a recovery will or won’t happen, so any alarm-ringing about impacts on Arctic fauna surival have no foundation in fact until then.

East Greenland Scorsby Sound March 2011 on Kap Tobin_Rune Dietz_press photo

Scorsby Sound, East Greenland bear in March 2011. Rune Dietz, press photo.

In the Bering Sea, ice extent is well below average for this time of year but studies show the one consistent feature of Bering Sea ice is its variability. Low ice levels have distressing impacts for St. Lawrence island seal and whale hunters. However, there is certainly enough ice in the Bering Sea/Chukchi Sea region for polar bears and Arctic seals to do what they do this time of year (which is try to survive until early April, at which time seals start giving birth to their pups and polar bears start to eat them, with gusto). And the ice season isn’t over: maximum extent of ice in the Bering sea doesn’t usually come until late April or May, and the dramatic decline of mid-February already shows signs of reversing.

Details below this ice map for 24 February 2018, courtesy NSIDC Masie:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2018 Feb 24

PS. I’m off within hours to Toronto for the launch of my State of the Polar Bear Report in honour of International Polar Bear Day, 27 February. Watch for reports in the news and for my op-ed 27 February at the Financial Post.

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Franz Josef Land is a sea ice refugium for most pregnant Barents Sea polar bears

Consensus polar bear expert Andrew Derocher has been busy over the last few weeks, expounding a story of doom regarding Svalbard area polar bears (e.g. here and here), ridiculing the suggestion that Franz Josef Land is viable alternate habitat for Barents Sea bears, especially pregnant females looking for a place to den and give birth. But the facts say otherwise.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

Below are the long answers, with references and ice maps, to the questions Derocher asked in his 21 December 2017 tweet (above), a refreshing change from the ‘take my word for it, I’m the official expert’ answer one gets from him, along with derogatory slurs directed at those who don’t share his pessimism.

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Svalbard polar bear habitat higher than average – here’s what that looks like

Polar bear habitat around Svalbard in the Barents Sea is currently slightly above average for 23 June 2017: this short post records what that amount of ice looks like according to the Norwegian Ice Service (NIS).

Svalbard ice extent 2017 June 23_NIS from archive

Compare to 2015 at the same date, the year that the last polar bear count was conducted for the Svalbard region, when many cubs were seen and the bears were reported in excellent condition:

Svalbard ice extent 2015 June 23_NIS from archive

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