Tag Archives: Svalbard

Sea ice melt in the Arctic Basin leaves an area for polar bears larger than Greenland

Most polar bears that spend the spring feeding in the peripheral seas of the Arctic Basin (such as the Beaufort, Chukchi, Kara, and Barents Seas) remain on the persistent pack ice of the central Arctic during the summer and this August, that refugium is still larger than Greenland. Most of these bears do not use this July-September Arctic Basin ice as a hunting platform unless they are very lucky: the few seals available are hard to catch. For the most part, polar bears fast or eat very little during the summer whether they are on land or on ice (see references in this post).

Svalbard polar bear fall 2015_Aars

Since early June, sea ice experts have been wringing their hands over the melting of Arctic sea ice and offering breathless speculation that this year’s September minimum could be – gasp! – as low as or less than 2012 or even less. But now, as the graph of ice cover at 28 August shows below, that outcome is looking not just unlikely but virtually impossible (the blue line is 2019 extent, red dashed line is 2012, and the brown line is 2016):

Sea ice extent 2012 and 2016 vs 2019 with 2x deviation at 28 Aug_NSIDC interactive

As expected, the failure of the ice to remain on track to set a new record September low due to global warming is shrugged off with a reminder that summer ice extent “is sensitive to changes in daily weather conditions.”

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Not predicted: more sea ice than average in southern-most Arctic first week of August

Polar bear habitat update for the first week of August 2019 shows there is still more sea ice than average in Hudson Bay, the southern-most area of continuous habitation for this species. That certainly wasn’t part of the predictions of doom, especially since freeze-up in that region for the last two years has also been earlier-than-average which means a shorter ice-free season than we’ve seen for decades.

Hudson Bay weekly departure from normal 2019 Aug 5

Despite ice coverage for the Arctic ice as a whole being marginally lower than it has been since 1979 for this time of year, sea ice for the first week of August was also above average around Svalbard in the Barents Sea and higher than the last few years in the Central Arctic, which is a critical summer refugium for polar bears that live in the peripheral seas of the Arctic Ocean, including the Chukchi (see photo below, taken in early August 2018).

Chukchi Sea polar bear Arctic_early August 2018_A Khan NSIDC small

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Shockingly thick first year ice between Barents Sea and the North Pole in mid-July

In late June, one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world encountered such extraordinarily thick ice on-route to the North Pole (with a polar bear specialist and deep-pocketed, Attenborough-class tourists onboard) that it took a day and a half longer than expected to get there. A few weeks later, in mid-July, a Norwegian icebreaker also bound for the North Pole (with scientific researchers on board) was forced to turn back north of Svalbard when it unexpectedly encountered impenetrable pack ice.

Franz Josef Land polar bear 2019 no date_Photo by Michael Hambrey_sm

A polar bear on hummocked sea ice in Franz Josef Land. Photo by Michael Hambrey, date not specified but estimated based on tour dates to be 22 or 23 June 2019.

Apparently, the ice charts the Norwegian captain consulted showed first year ice – ice that formed the previous fall, defined as less than 2 m thick (6.6 ft) – which is often much broken up by early summer. However, what he and his Russian colleague came up against was consolidated first year pack ice up to 3 m thick (about 10 ft). Such thick first year ice was not just unexpected but by definition, should have been impossible.

Ice charts for the last few years that estimate actual ice thickness (rather than age) show ice >2 m thick east and/or just north of Svalbard and around the North Poie is not unusual at this time of year.  This suggests that the propensity of navigational charts to use ice ‘age’ (e.g. first year vs. multi-year) to describe ice conditions could explain the Norwegian captain getting caught off-guard by exceptionally thick first year ice. It also provides an explanation for why the polar bear specialist onboard the Russian icebreaker later failed to explain that first year ice of such shocking thickness was truly extraordinary, not just a bit thicker than usual.

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Norwegian polar bears continue to thrive in 2019: Svalbard spring study results are in

Results from spring Norwegian fieldwork in the Svalbard region of the Barents Sea are in and they show that despite having to deal with the most extreme loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, polar bears in this region continue to thrive.

Svalbard polarbear-helicopter-npolar-framcentre

Svalbard polar bear territory (managed by Norway) includes sea ice to the Russian boarder to the east as well as the area around the Svalbard archipelago: the map below is from Aars et al. 2017.

Aars et a. 2017 Figure 1

Observations were collected around Svalbard by a team lead by Jon Aars and Magnus Andersen of the Norwegian Polar Institute between March and May this year, and posted online 4 June 2019. Kudos to them for making their on-going observations and analysis available, in a timely manner for all to see.

Note that Svalbard is the western half of the ‘Barents Sea’ polar bear subpopulation: in recent years, most of the region’s polar bears have been living around Franz Josef Land in the eastern (Russian) sector where Norwegian researchers are not permitted to work.

Barents Sea with Franz Josef Land

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Polar bear habitat update: abundant sea ice across the Arctic, even in the Barents Sea

Abundant ice in Svalbard, East Greenland and the Labrador Sea is excellent news for the spring feeding season ahead because this is when bears truly need the presence of ice for hunting and mating. As far as I can tell, sea ice has not reached Bear Island, Norway at this time of year since 2010 but this year ice moved down to the island on 3 March and has been there ever since. This may mean we’ll be getting reports of polar bear sightings from the meteorological station there, so stay tuned.

Walking bear shutterstock_329214941_web size

Sea ice extent as of 11 March 2019, from NSIDC Masie:

masie_all_zoom_4km 2019 March 11

Much of the ice that was blown out of the Bering Sea early in the month has returned and ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the East Coast of Canada is the highest its been in years, threatening to impede ferry traffic between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, as it did in 2015 and again in 2017. The fishing season off Newfoundland might also be delayed by the heavy ice, as it was in 2017.

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Abundant polar bear habitat across the Arctic at the start of winter

January is the first month of the Arctic winter, the season when most polar bears really struggle to find enough to eat.

Polar bears feeding_Shutterstock_sm

Here is what the sea ice looked like around the Arctic at the end of this month.

masie_all_zoom_4km 2019 Jan 31

Compare to last year:

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Svalbard polar bears doing fine with much less sea ice say Norwegian biologists

“…despite the loss of good denning areas and a shrinking habitat for hunting, Svalbard’s bears seem to be doing fine.…The sea ice season is now several months shorter, and the ice edge typically lies several degrees further north than what was normal 20-40 years ago….Polar bears can survive long periods without food, provided they have accumulated a good fat reserve during the few months in spring and summer when sea ice is present, and seals are abundant.” [Jon Aars, Norwegian Polar Institute, 2018]

lying bear shutterstock_244419640_cropped_web size

Jon Aars from the Norwegian Polar Institute has written an update on the status of Svalbard polar bears for the general public (The Barents Observer, 8 January 2019, republished from a story published by The Fram Centre in their newsletter: Population changes in polar bears: protected, but quickly losing habitat).

franz_josef_land_location_wikipedia

Read the whole thing below (original has awesome photos). It reports the truth of the current situation with the usual caveats about what might happen decades into the future. Continue reading