Speculation on ice-trapped whales: science-based fiction vs. dishonest science

Reposted from Polar Bear Science

Posted on December 6, 2020 | 

Ice entrapment of whales is known to happen across the Arctic, including Davis Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. How common such phenomena were in the past or might be in the future are subjects of conjecture. However, while speculation is the bread-and-butter of science-based fiction, it is the bane of peer-reviewed science.

I’ve written two novels informed by science set a bit in the future (2025-2026) in Eastern Canada: EATEN was set in Newfoundland and my latest book UPHEAVAL –see a review here – is set in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In UPHEAVAL, one of the issues I explore is ice entrapment of large whales, like North Atlantic right whales. I speculate in the story whether carcasses of ice-killed whales might provide a powerful enough attraction to lure Davis Strait polar bears down from Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if they did, what might be the repercussions of that shift in distribution.

Here I argue that a novel is the appropriate place for this kind of speculation and researchers who offer such conjecture to the public in a way that conflates a science-informed guess with evidence-based fact risks eroding public trust in science.

Both of my novels are set in regions that few would call ‘the Arctic’ yet both have seasonal sea ice and ice-associated marine mammals, including harp seals, polar bears, belugas, and north Atlantic right whales. There is also a long history of hunting these animals and recent successes in conservation efforts aimed at their recovery have had some unintended consequences. For example, after decades of over-hunting, there has been a huge increase in harp seal numbers off Newfoundland and Labrador over the last 30 years that has helped polar bear numbers in Davis Strait to recover from centuries of over-hunting because harp seals are a critical food source for these bears. EATEN explored the possibilities of what might happen if that food resource suddenly failed.

Similarly, effective conservation of North Atlantic Right whales (below) has also resulted in increased numbers after having been over-hunted for centuries. However, in recent years some have become trapped in the sea ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and died. The timing and location of some of these ice-entrapment events suggests a few right and blue whales have re-discovered traditional feeding areas in the northern Gulf, along the south shore of Quebec – which we know about because that’s where Basque whalers set up hunting operations in 1520-1625.

The following excerpt (my bold) is from a commentary article published in the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Chronicle Herald 22 March 2019 (by Paul Brodie, a former DFO employee specializing in whale research), Pack ice could pose new threat to migrating right whales:

Early commercial whaling was conducted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by Basque whalers from 1520 to 1625, after fishermen returned with news of abundant whale stocks. Right and bowhead whales, attracted to the northern Gulf by concentrations of zooplankton, were in numbers sufficient to sustain whaling for generations using existing technology.

The present global numbers for right whales may be as high as 20,000, consisting of several populations that are either stable or increasing. Of this number, the 425-450 North Atlantic right whales initially summering in the Bay of Fundy/Gulf of Maine appear to be of greatest concern. Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear were the main causes of mortality.

Numbers of this monitored population have shifted to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where some 30-40 per cent now reside during the summer. However, this comes at the cost of an additional source of mortality: that of exposure to shifting pack ice.

Should right whales rediscover the ancient feeding and whaling grounds of the northern Gulf, they will be further compromised. There is a long history of what must amount to hundreds of large whales being ice-trapped and smothered, and more recently in 2015, at least six blue whales were trapped and died in heavy ice.

In the spring of 2017, there was record pack ice off Newfoundland and Labrador and Newfoundland, trapping many fishing vessels. It was well-documented by the media. There was also a sequence of right whale carcasses in various stages of decomposition, drifting in the ice water to the southern Gulf, probably released as northern pack ice opened up and deteriorated. Several mortalities were attributed to ship strikes and gear entanglement, and the majority to “blunt force trauma,” which can occur when hundreds of square kilometres of wind- and current-driven rafted pack ice (each square kilometre weighing 500,000 to one million tonnes) encases and smothers large whales for days or weeks.

Blue whales wintering on the continental shelf begin exploring the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Cabot Strait as early as late March, moving northward along the ice edge as they pass Port aux Basques. My first direct observation was of two blue whales feeding close to the ice front in the Strait of Belle Isle in April 1967, which seemed rather perilous should the pack ice shift toward the shore. In the spring of 2015, six or more blue whales, as well as humpbacks and sperm whales were lost.

Should right whales occupy their historic northern feeding areas, they would suffer a similar fate. The year 2017 was one of record pack ice along the Newfoundland and Labrador northern coasts: a year when at least 12 right whale carcasses were discovered in the central and southern Gulf.

Read the whole thing here.

In constructing the storyline for UPHEAVAL, I wondered whether these whale victims of ice entrapment in the Gulf could become an attractant for polar bears, as has been recorded across the Arctic from Wrangel Island to Pond Inlet and Disko Bay, Greenland, amongst others. I speculated whether carcasses of ice-killed whales might provide a powerful enough attraction to lure Davis Strait polar bears down from Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if they did, what might happen next, especially if the region is hit by a tsunami while it’s covered in sea ice.

Speculation such as this is what science-based fiction is all about and is the appropriate forum for this kind of guesswork.

Contrast this with a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that involved similar levels of imagination but was passed off as ‘science’. Without any evidence whatsoever, Kristin Laidre, Ian Stirling and others (Laidre et al. 2018) suggested that polar bears ‘likely’ survived low-ice levels during the Eemian Interglacial and other warm periods by scavenging carcasses of dead whales during the ice-free season – and then used this baseless premise to advance their advocacy opinion that polar bear survival in the future is doomed because of man-made climate change. 

Of course, the media ignored the groundless nature of the original premise and presented something that might have occurred in the past as something that definitely happened – see herehere, and here. In other words, they sold the general public a lie by suggesting a guess made by biologists was a scientifically verified fact.

Bottom line: Presenting speculation informed by science as fiction is an appropriate way to explore intriguing scientific questions but passing off such conjecture as evidence-based science is dishonest and risks eroding public trust in science, especially when it’s used to advance an agenda.


Laidre, K.L., Stirling, I., Estes, J.A., Kochnev, A. and Roberts,J. 2018. Historical and potential future importance of large whales as food for polar bears. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment doi:10.1002/fee.1963

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December 8, 2020 11:07 am

The whole whale kingdom is ecstatic humans found petroleum oil for their lamps.

December 8, 2020 11:40 am

This sad story is in the same vein as reports of young people who base their grasp of actual historical events entirely on Hollywood movies they have seen.

(But I guess that’s no different to teachers and other supposedly enlightened adults who regard Al Gore’s preposterous slideshow ‘An Inconvenient Truth” as – well, “truth”)

Joel O'Bryan
December 8, 2020 12:33 pm

The public is bombarded by so much science fiction these days, mst couldn’t tell the fact from fiction.

I’m anxious to patent my Heisenberg Compensator design.
Quantum mechanics be damned.
It’ll revolutionize personal transport without the need for fossil fuels.
Then patenting my warp field coil design will be next.
General relativity be damned.
It’ll revolutionize space travel by allowing you arrive before you departed.

The whole climate scam is rooted in a massive deception of the public of what is science and what is science fiction. Climate models mostly science fiction for their use of subjective, poorly constrained tunable parameters and then “believing” the outputs have any a priori sk1ll. The public isn’t even aware of how much junk science climate models are. Much like Star Trek warp supra-luminal travel and transporters, junk science all the way down, but it’s fun to imagine, just remember what is real.
However, the public expects a Brave New World, but it’s a New World Order we’ll get if we’re not careful about who we pick as political leaders.

Bill Powers
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
December 8, 2020 1:36 pm

“Man Made Global Warm…aahhh we really meant Climate Change all along” Is a test of the Emergency Propaganda System to determine the level of gullibility among the masses for the globalists running the temple monkeys at the United Nations to gauge their planned conversion to One World Governance.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
December 8, 2020 1:54 pm

Is that Heisenberg aka Walter White of “Breaking Bad” infamy?

December 8, 2020 12:40 pm

The whale plights remind me of flying VFR into IMC weather and getting trapped.. you do a 180 ASAP!

Although I’m not a whale, I’m guessing they use sonar to find the breaks in the ice to breathe. I can imagine the panic when they have gotten so far into the ice field there are no openings to surface. With the amount of body mass, the ice has to be pretty thick to prevent them from breaking through it from underneath, especially the Blue Whales. Life is tough.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  rbabcock
December 8, 2020 8:42 pm

VFR on top is legal in Canada. Just hope you can land.

HD Hoese
December 8, 2020 12:44 pm

According to this not very sensible account—- ‘“Inuit knowledge has kept indigenous people safe on the ice for generations,” he said. However, this is now being challenged by “unprecedented ice conditions”, he added.’

However, “Inuktitut ice terminology is “much more extensive and meaningful” than in English, he explained, with four or five times as many terms, based on centuries of knowledge of living on the ice passed down orally. “That’s ultimately what will keep people safe,” Bell said.”

Do the Inuit need to be saved like everybody else in this case lured with polar bears down to dangerous ice? “To help Inuit people adapt to less stable ice, Memorial’s Bell founded SmartICE, a social enterprise that allows communities to monitor ice safety.” Save us from those who would save us?

Climate believer
December 8, 2020 1:03 pm

From the study abstract https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1963 :

“We concluded that scavenging on large whale carcasses likely facilitated survival of polar bears in past interglacial periods when access to seals was reduced”

Ok, so dead whales kept them going during the Eemian, a 10,000 year period when temperatures in the Arctic region were about 2-4 °C higher than today. That’s a long time, and a lot of whales. The temperature seems not to have had a negative effect on them at least. I would suggest that the use of the phrase “facilitated survival” over such a long time period is being some what disingenuous.

They site greatly reduced whale populations as a reason why PB’s would not fair so well today.
I don’t think in 2020 that’s true, we saved the whale remember, well most of them.
Common Minke whales status in the Arctic is healthy, around 180,000.
Humpback whales back above pre-whaling levels.
Bowhead whales, again status healthy, the population in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas has been increasing annually at over 3% since the first reliable census in 1978. iwc

How do we know what the whale population numbers were in the Eemian for comparison?
What were their environmental limitations?

Seems to me as if they are trying to minimise an inconvenient truth. PB’s rock at survival.

Smart Rock
December 8, 2020 1:06 pm

It’s climate science. The conclusions are what matters. Facts are optional. Whether facts are really factual is irrelevant.

December 8, 2020 1:35 pm

“In the spring of 2017, there was record pack ice off Newfoundland and Labrador”

Tell griff about it. That goes counter to his narrative.

HD Hoese
December 8, 2020 1:36 pm

In first time scanning the relatively new Endangered Species Research journal I briefly viewed this two year old one probably well known, am tired of reading negative ones about most everything, can’t all be that bad.—Changes in winter and spring resource selection by polar bears Ursus maritimus in Baffin Bay over two decades of sea-ice loss https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00886

“Unrealistic and poor-quality locations were removed using a speed and angle filter in R version2.13.2 (R Development Core Team 2013) using the package ‘argosfilter’ (Freitas et al. 2008)…… It is therefore reasonable to hypothesize that changes in habitat use and selection, as documented in the current study, are or will eventually be associated with negative demographic effects.” In their figure 3 ice covered days just might not be going down any more.

December 8, 2020 3:21 pm

As an author of fiction, I concur with the premise — plausible conjecture and imaginative narrative are not only valid for fiction, they contribute to the primary thrill of such writing: a vivid realization of how things might come to pass, or existed in the past.

As to the second premise, also concur with regard to science writing: floating an ungrounded (not to mention unproven) claim, and counting on the unfortunate dumbing-down of the culture to assume fact — this is toxic and destructive.

The shameless deployment of this gambit in service to autocratic control is scary.

Bruce Hall
December 8, 2020 4:00 pm

It must be fake news about the whales. There is no ice in the Arctic salt waters. An expert says so.

Reply to  Bruce Hall
December 9, 2020 3:18 am

yeah thinking that too
according to the fearmongers the ice is nearly gone for good
so the ice that killed the whales is imaginary….
wattsupwiththat indeed;-))) lol

December 9, 2020 1:50 am

What are the bears who can’t get out on the ice in summer eating, that’s more to the point…

Reply to  griff
December 9, 2020 6:05 am

I imagine the bears are on or near the edge/fringes of the ice as much as possible. That’s where the food is. When they can’t find it, they are rather adept at swimming great distances to find food. Bears are great hunters and even better scavengers.
Which is also why they can be found near garbage dumps.

Reply to  griff
December 9, 2020 7:52 am

Environmentalists out there wondering what bears are going to eat……

Reply to  griff
December 9, 2020 12:04 pm

Now griff wants the whole Arctic frozen over is summer, like the extreme levels during the LIA anomaly.

His hatred of Arctic sea life is deep. The return of sea ice extents, slightly towards the Holocene norm has been a boon for ALL life in the Arctic

Not only is the land surface GREENING, but the seas are also springing BACK to life after being TOO COLD and frozen over for much of the last 500 or so years (coldest period of the Holocene)

The drop in sea ice slightly toward the pre-LIA levels has opened up the food supply for the nearly extinct Bowhead Whale, and they are returning to the waters around Svalbard.


The Blue Mussel is also making a return, having been absent for a few thousand years, apart from a brief stint during the MWP.


Many other species of whale are also returning now that the sea ice extent has dropped from the extreme highs of the LIA. Whales cannot swim on ice. !


Current levels of sea ice are still in the top 10% or so of the Holocene.

Get over it griff, stop you childish CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL.

Reply to  griff
December 9, 2020 12:07 pm

Remember griff, in 1922 there was no ice around Svalbard even during winter.

Yet the bears are still there.

Last year the sea ice left the shores of Svalbard LATER than several of the last 40 years..

As usual, you are getting your poor dim little mind all in a tizzy, over nothing.

December 9, 2020 7:16 am

Anything to sell their fake narrative, they got to keep those tax dollars flowing in don’t ya know.

Every time I see articles and reports about stranded whales my mind goes back to the days of yore, when our ancestors would rush from miles around to a whale stranding and start butchering them as fast as they could before the meat spoiled. Something is seriously wrong, today people rush there pretend to “save” them whilst watching them die and then rot. Our societies are run by a bunch of morons.

December 9, 2020 11:17 am
December 15, 2020 6:03 pm

I appreciate Susan Crockford’s work, but chuckle at the Saint Lawrence being in the ‘Arctic’.

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