2/22/2016 5:29:33 PM
A Challenging Ice Year in Svalbard?
The winter of 2015/16 has been a wild one for the Arctic. January was warm beyond belief across the Arctic, with sea ice tracking at record low levels. Svalbard's polar bears, in particular, were challenged by the virtual absence of sea ice anywhere near the cluster of islands until late December.
When I worked in Svalbard with the Barents Sea Population, we were based on Hopen Island in the southeast corner of the archipelago. At times, up to 40 female polar bears denned there, but it was clear that they were sensitive to sea ice conditions. If the ice didn't arrive at the island by the first week of December, females couldn't reach the area in time to den and had to go elsewhere.
While Hopen Island lies at the southern range of the denning habitat in Svalbard, 2015 presented new challenges to bears throughout the Barents Sea population. Sea ice was very late arriving at Kong Karls Land, which is a major and critically important denning area for the population. Kong Karls Land is what I consider one of the three jewels of polar bear denning. Along with the Churchill denning area in Canada and Wrangel Island in Russia, these three areas have unusually high densities of denning females.
Kong Karls Land can have 80 dens a year in a rather small area. Bogen Valley on KongsÌüya (Kings Island) used to be like a polar bear condominium complex: Females often denned a minute's walk from their neighbor. Some females, probably a bit bored after months in a den, would move their cubs to other dens if the former resident had already taken her cubs out to the ice.
What happened to denning in 2015/16 in Svalbard won't be known until the Norwegian field crew reports back. It's a worrisome time. Sea ice didn't arrive until December in much of the archipelago. The changes in Svalbard have come much faster than expected.
Many of the areas where I studied bears from 1996-2002 are no longer polar bear habitat: They don't have any sea ice now. While the recent COP21 agreement in Paris is a positive step forward, the challenges for polar bears remain as they were. We all have a role to play and the Paris Agreement is a promising start, but we need additional leadership and a fast transition to a low-carbon future to address the challenges ahead.