Reposted from 23 March 2016: Despite the fact that the polar bears of Southern Hudson Bay (SHB) live further south year round than any others, a recent study found their average body weight has declined relatively little since the 1980s. There has been no decline in the size of the population over that time either.
Remarkably – despite what we are told about how critical breakup dates are to polar bear health and survival in Hudson Bay – this study found that for SHB bears, the small decline in body condition index correlated only with freeze-up dates, not breakup dates or length of the ice-free season. They also found that regional breakup and freeze-up dates relevant to polar bears in this area was the day when ice cover reached 5% (not 50%).
In other words, SHB polar bears left the ice (or returned to it) when the average ice cover near the coast was about 5%. This finding is yet more evidence that the meteorological definition of “breakup” (date of 50% ice cover) used by many researchers (see discussion here) is not appropriate for describing the seasonal movements of polar bears on and off shore.
The news (two weeks after this post originally went up, see also here), however, is about the bit of weight decline, hyped to the maximum.
The oft-repeated claim that polar bears are starving in Western Hudson Bay (e.g., here, here, here, and here) comes primarily from a 10 year old study that documented a declining trend in polar bear body condition (a biology euphemism for relative fatness) between 1980 and 2004, which appeared to correlate with earlier and earlier breakup dates for Hudson Bay.
Figure 1. Polar bear female with cub, 2009, Churchill, Western Hudson Bay. Wikipedia.
The authors of that study (polar bear specialist Ian Stirling and NASA sea ice researcher Claire Parkinson) reported the body weights of lone female bears captured in Western Hudson Bay between 1980 and 2004. The trend over time in those bear weights was then correlated with the overall change in dates of sea ice breakup on Hudson Bay for that period.
However, it turns out that while the trend of body condition and the trend in breakup dates indeed correlated over time, the actual year to year data did not. The question is, what does that mean for the claim that polar bears in WHB are starving?
Posted in Life History, Sea ice habitat
Tagged body condition, breakup, Cherry, climate change, Parkinson, pregnancy, sea ice, starving polar bears, Stirling, too thin, trends, weight, western hudson bay