Alaska polar bear researchers claim poor sea ice limited spring field work in 2021 more than 2019

From Polar Bear Science

According to an Inside Climate News report, polar bear researchers at the US Geological Survey had trouble darting bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea in March-May of 2019 and 2021. They claim their research program was hampered by thinner-than-necessary ice for safely landing the nearly 4,000 lb. outfitted helicopter (with crew and gear) in 2019 but that conditions in 2021 were even worse (it is implied work proceeded in 2020 despite pandemic restrictions but no data for that year are discussed).

However, this claim of worse conditions in 2021 is not corroborated by reports from sea ice experts and ice charts for the Southern Beaufort this spring, where thick first year and multiyear ice was present from March through June. Ice didn’t begin to pull away from landfast ice to form patches of open water near the Canadian border until late April 2021 compared to early May in 2019 (as it did in 2016), as shown in the video and charts below. Moreover, the researchers oddly fail to mention that the presence of thin ice and open water in spring is essential for polar bear survival in the Southern Beaufort, a fact which has been documented and discussed in the scientific literature by their colleagues.

Polar Bears Are Suffering from the Arctic’s Loss of Sea Ice. So Is Scientists’ Ability to Study Them” (D. Hasemyer, Inside Climate News, 5 October 2021).

The reporter tries to paint a picture of polar bears suffering harm from these recent conditions but in fact there is no published data from the Southern Beaufort after 2016, and any effects claimed to have been documented in bears up to that year have not been conclusively demonstrated to have been caused by sea ice loss (Crockford 2021) because a correlation is not evidence of causation.

The ICN ‘story’ is really a big whine from researchers about not being able to work over the last three years because of weather conditions, used as a vehicle to reiterate their unfounded claims that these conditions have negatively impacted Southern Beaufort polar bears.

The condition of the sea ice has deteriorated so much that it’s been three years since Atwood and his colleagues have been able to physically examine a bear. When you’re studying polar bears, you need polar bears to study, is Atwood’s mantra.” 

The ICN headline blames “loss of sea ice” for the on-going problem with doing polar bear research in the Southern Beaufort but the story includes data that shows more than half of the problem is fog, although they don’t say at what time of year fog is a problem (March or May?).

The warmer Arctic waters have been linked to polar vortexes, unpredictable severe weather and heatwaves.

That’s on a global front. But in Atwood’s much smaller world the warming means more fog. And more fog means less flying time, because visibility drops to near zero in the dense, sheet-white vapor.

By his count, the number of suitable flying days has dropped by more than half over the last 20 years because of fog.

Looking back at flight logs, Atwood said, he found that fog grounded the center’s research helicopters about 24 percent of the time between 2000 and 2009.

That number increased to 46 percent between 2010 and 2015; and jumped to 56 percent over the last five years. It correlates with warming temperatures and disappearing sea ice. “We are losing over half of the time we could be in the air surveying the bears,” he said.

Read the entire sordid tale here.

S. Beaufort ice conditions 2021 Port Barrow to the Canadian Border March-May

Thick first year ice (>1.2m) and old, multiyear ice (dark green and brown) dominated with a few patches of thinner ice (light green and purple):

April 2021

May 2021

Western Beaufort ice conditions 2021, late May

The open water was not widespread across Alaska:

Southern Beaufort ice conditions 2019, March-May

Much more thin first year ice (light green) close to shore in early March 2019 compared to 2021:

By mid April 2019, that thin first year ice had become thick first year ice at least 1.2 m thick (dark green) with a few scattered thin patches in areas where polynya formation is routine:

By early May 2019, there were some patches of open water in between thick ice:

Western Beaufort 2019, late May

Not mentioned at all in this article is the fact that in spring in the Southern Beaufort, areas of thin ice or open water within regions of thick spring ice are essential to ringed and bearded seals as areas for breathing and resting on the ice between feeding bouts, and that polar bears are attracted to those areas because they are hunting hot-spots. I have discussed this extensively (with references) herehere, and most recently here.

Here is a quote from my 2015 post from a paper by Smith and Rigby (1981:24) on the development of open water in eastern Beaufort, 1975-1979:

“Some open water can be found in virtually all months somewhere in western Amundsen Gulf in the area of Cape Bathurst, Cape Parry, and Cape Kellet (Banks Island). Open water can appear as early as sometime in December, although it is not until April that a characteristic form to the polynya appears. 

During each of the 5 years [of the study: 1975-1979] an open lead developed off the eastern side of Cape Bathurst sometime in January (Fig.14a). This coincided with the appearance of open water just north of Cape Parry in 4 of the 5 years.

Open water remains in the general area, in some form, until late May to early June when, characteristically, the area between Cape Bathurst and Cape Kellett opens up to form a disintegration area. Until April, the size, shape, and location of open water is quite variable by month and by year (e. g. Fig. 14b). By April in most years, however, the polynya exhibits a more or less typical form (Fig. l4(c-f). With the advance of break-up, the open water between Cape Bathurst and Cape Kellett enlarges into Amundsen Gulf. In addition, open water develops northwards, along Banks Island, and westwards to Mackenzie Bay (see Fig. 14g. h).

The extent to which the shorelead polynya system in the Beaufort Sea is open is mainly dependent upon wind since this influences the movement of the Arctic pack. The coast was open to Mackenzie Bay in all five summers, and as far west as Barter Island in three.” [my bold]

In that 2015 post I also quoted this paragraph from a 1981 paper by Stirling and colleagues (Stirling et al. 1981:54) that explains why these Southern Beaufort spring polynyas are so important to polar bears:

“One useful approach is to ask what would happen if the polynya was not there? Obviously this is impossible to evaluate on an experimental basis, but by examining the consequences or natural seasonal variation, some useful insights can be gained. For example, the influence of rapidly changing ice conditions on the availability of open water, and consequently on populations of seals and polar bears, has been observed in the western Arctic. Apparently in response to severe ice conditions in the Beaufort Sea during winter 1973-74, and to a lesser degree in winter 1974-75, numbers of ringed and bearded seals dropped by about 50% and productivity by about 90%. Concomitantly, numbers and productivity of polar bears declined markedly because of the reduction in the abundance of their prey species. …If the shoreleads of the western Arctic or Hudson Bay ceased opening during winter and spring, the effect on marine mammals would be devastating.”[my bold]

Bottom line: The formation of patchy and/or thin sea ice in the Southern Beaufort close to shore in spring is a characteristic of the region known since the 1970s that is essential to the survival of seals and polar bears, not a dangerous anomaly that can be blamed on recent climate change. Not being able to land a 4,000 pound helicopter on spring ice whenever and where ever they prefer between early March and late May is a research constraint for scientists rather than a survival issue for polar bears. Furthermore, it is not apparent that sea ice conditions in 2021 were any “worse” that 2019 for either helicopters or polar bears although fog may have been worse in 2021.


Crockford, S.J. 2021. The State of the Polar Bear Report 2020. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report 48, London. pdf here.

Smith, M. and Rigby, B. 1981. Distribution of polynyas in the Canadian Arctic. In: Polynyas in the Canadian Arctic, Stirling, I. and Cleator, H. (eds), pg. 7-28. Canadian Wildlife Service, Occasional Paper No. 45. Ottawa.

Stirling, I, Cleator, H. and Smith, T.G. 1981. Marine mammals. In: Polynyas in the Canadian Arctic, Stirling, I. and Cleator, H. (eds), pg. 45-58. Canadian Wildlife Service, Occasional Paper No. 45. Ottawa.

Pdf of pertinent excerpts of above papers here.

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Coeur de Lion
October 8, 2021 2:09 am

Try walking. But not in fog. Anyone solved the Darwinian problem of the black nose? Could be a lifesaver in fog.

Reply to  Coeur de Lion
October 8, 2021 3:01 am

Looking this morning from a bit foggy SW London common (just back from Med’s sunshine), polar bears are nice and cuddly. What is more of our concern is the sight of the Russian, yes with the black nose, brown bear (this is not a racist comment) marching this winter strait out of the Siberian fog in our direction empty handed ‘bearing’ no presents in the form of extra gas supplies.

Reply to  Vuk
October 8, 2021 4:40 pm

I believe the bear was invited to dinner…

Reply to  Coeur de Lion
October 8, 2021 3:26 am

re ‘black nose’
For long time it is thought that dogs, bears and some other carnivores have black nose in order to protect exposed skin from sunburns. However this is not the case with many ‘vegetarians’, hence a new research is required.
I would think that since black is the best heat absorbing surface, many of these predictors hunt at night, they might be able with their black nose to detect infrared radiation of a possible pray hiding and well camouflaged which the eyesight night vision or smell alone may not fully indentify.

Reply to  Vuk
October 8, 2021 6:25 am

Nice observation.
I have also never been a fan of the sunburn protection theory,
as in this case nose colors would range from white to black as it is with humans.

I do not really agree with the infrared stuff (as it makes more sense to detect radiation with the eyes ,as some birds do who can see more colors than we can)
I tend to think that a high tech predator nose may need a different kind of maintenance than the rest of the body (as eg testicles need cooler temperature )
and maybe the nose needs a special blood flow to keep high skills high,and maybe the black nose delivers a regular “contrast bath ” as black absorbs and releases energy much faster and therefore the nose heats and cools much faster during the day than the rest of the body.

Reply to  SxyxS
October 8, 2021 4:41 pm

how about reducing glare when looking down the snout?

Reply to  SxyxS
October 10, 2021 11:58 am

How about heating up the nasal cavity so that odors are more oderous and easier to detect/follow/evade?

Reply to  Coeur de Lion
October 8, 2021 6:08 am

Absorbs heat, everyone hates a cold nose. Polar bears have black skin and the hairs of their coats are transparent like cellophane, it’s the thickness that makes it appear white.

Reply to  Chris*
October 8, 2021 6:12 am

I read somewhere that polar bears are genetically near identical to the Irish black bears.

H. D. Hoese
Reply to  Coeur de Lion
October 8, 2021 6:19 am

Never been in the Arctic, but have fair amount of fog experience, learned to trust a compass in graduate school before the days research ships had Loran, etc. Maybe their GPS went out. Never thought black important, buoys and other markers usually have brighter colors.Red right returning critical advice.

Ireneusz Palmowski
October 8, 2021 2:12 am

Fog correlates with galactic radiation.comment imagecomment image

October 8, 2021 2:14 am

 It looks to me as if polar bears are suffering harm mainly from being darted by Alaskan polar bear researchers, rendered unconscious, hauled up in the air for weighing, and generally having their home life and peaceful existence destroyed for no good reason.

Reply to  nicholas tesdorf
October 8, 2021 6:29 am

Polar Bears are what music bands were in the 60ies.
Most of them were famous and pisspoor at the same time as they have been systematically ripped of by the managers and record labels.
In this case the polar bears get the fame and scientists all the money.

Reply to  nicholas tesdorf
October 8, 2021 9:25 am

I asked Wally Walrus about the ice…he says the bears are always angry…and the scientists make them more angry…..and Sir David sends them into frenzy.

Pamela Matlack-Klein
October 8, 2021 2:23 am

Why is the chopper essential to their research? They are useful equipment in the field but seems they could land it nearby and use shanks mare or snowmobiles to get to the bears. All this darting and transport of tranked bears can’t possibly be good for them either. Darted animals do perish from the shock of being darted then handled by smelly humans. Or maybe this is all part of the plan, stress as many bears as possible and more will die!

Reply to  Pamela Matlack-Klein
October 8, 2021 4:43 am

Why is the chopper essential to their research?

It depends. On one hand, Ian Stirling’s folks used to go out on a snowmobile to do tagging.

On the other hand, ice conditions often dictate that you can’t go somewhere. Lots of southerners assume that sea ice is flat. It isn’t and that simple fact has derailed amateur adventurers’ attempts to get to the North Pole. (I’m thinking particularly about one guy who tried it by motorcycle.) And then there are the distances involved. The number of bears you can tag in a day by helicopter is way more than you could do by snowmobile or walking.

Fog is a real ki11er even if you can see the ice because, if you can’t see the horizon, you can’t tell the difference between ice and sky. It’s called whiteout.

Personally, I’d be way happier in a helicopter with big pontoon floats than on a snowmobile if there were a chance of thin ice.

So, the inability to use helicopters is a plausible excuse. The trouble for them is that Susan Crockford has called bs on that excuse.

Reply to  commieBob
October 8, 2021 9:09 am

Why not use a Hovercraft?

Reply to  Yooper
October 8, 2021 4:44 pm

Back in the late 1970s (If I Recall Correctly) a group was promoting hovercraft for operating on tundra. It sounded like a really good idea but went nowhere. I have no clue why hovercraft never took off.

Richard Page
Reply to  Pamela Matlack-Klein
October 8, 2021 6:23 am

Get a helicopter fitted with floats rather than just skids or wheels – it’s an adaptation found quite often in helicopters operating over water. Presumably this is a clear example of Polar Bears being better at adapting to the circumstances than the researchers.

Pamela Matlack-Klein
Reply to  Richard Page
October 8, 2021 10:23 am

That makes sense, then if the ice gives, the thing should still be able to take off.

Ron Long
October 8, 2021 3:32 am

Good report by Susan, as usual. The problem of flying in fog is not only limited visibility, it is rapid icing of the rotors of helicopters (or wings of airplanes). Fog in late Spring/early Summer is still below freezing and very dangerous. Polar bears have black skin underneath all of that white hair so no surprise they have a black nose. The Inuits I worked with say a polar bear often will cover their nose when sneaking up on a seal, which would be a real Darwinian event.

Pamela Matlack-Klein
Reply to  Ron Long
October 8, 2021 10:33 am

Years ago, I recall being told that the bears will cover their noses with snow so they don’t stand out so much. I have never closely examined the pelt of a polar bear, is their skin black? The foot pads and nose leather being black suggests that the skin is also black, the same as black bears.

October 8, 2021 3:42 am

“Inside Climate News” More like “Inside Climate Fantasy Land”

Every aspect, every claim is being ramped up leading up to the CoP Antarctica went the wrong way by cooling, but then that’s just yet more confirmation of man made ‘global heating’. They came for the penguins, they’re back for the bears and some even want to bring back the mammoth.

There’s an engineered neurosis that goes with the constant barrage of heightened alarmism: 

What climate scientists can teach us about dealing with climate change doom

The warnings keep coming of more heatwaves, droughts, floods, and global temperatures going up and up and up. Seeing so many negative stories in the news only makes Ross feel worse. Like many, he worries it’s already too late.

So now climate scientists are counsellors, too? The BBC has had no small part in all of this, it has led the charge….

“The COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow in November is seen as crucial if climate change is to be brought under control. “

Brought under control? I’m amazed at that train of thought. 

Reply to  fretslider
October 8, 2021 5:13 am

I’m not sure why you’re amazed. It’s pretty simple really, and more of a short bus* of thought than a train of thought. First off, you go buy some crayons and lots of sheets of paper, then you get net carbon dioxide emissions to zero, then step aside and wait until atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are at 350ppm, and there you have it – the climate is now under control.

*Footnote: Generally, the short bus is a smaller version of a regular school bus that carries mentally challenged students to school.

Reply to  philincalifornia
October 8, 2021 5:35 am

I see no role for your short buses in today’s world as 97% of all students are now officially vulnerable and mentally ill etc etc. That’s the proof that IPCRESS really does work.

I’d say bigger buses will be needed.- and bigger institutions.

October 8, 2021 3:46 am

So, basically, bears were not harassed by a bunch of busybodies, and a huge amount of money was not pissed away on the same busybodies. I don’t see the problem.

Richard Page
Reply to  2hotel9
October 8, 2021 6:27 am

The huge amount of money was, presumably, still pissed away on the same busybodies, on the principle that if you don’t spend it this year, you won’t get it again next year. Probably spent it on ‘essential research equipment’.

Ron Long
Reply to  Richard Page
October 8, 2021 6:35 am

Sounds like the voice of experience, there Richard. OK, I confess, I know this theme up close and personal…..Never Mind.

Reply to  Richard Page
October 8, 2021 11:24 am

“Probably spent it on ‘essential research equipment’.” Used to be it would have been spent on hotels, rental vehicles, booze and strippers. I am not certain what this younger generation is doing with the “booze and strippers” portion of it. Pajamas and streaming? Reservations for ComicCon and ScifiCon? It is a brave new world, don’t ya know. 😉

Richard Page
Reply to  2hotel9
October 8, 2021 12:19 pm

See, you know exactly what ‘essential research equipment’ is.

Crispin Pemberton-Pigott
Reply to  2hotel9
October 8, 2021 9:48 pm

Your comment reminds me of the guy who won $100,000 in a lottery. Asked a year later where it had all gone, he replied, “I spend $93,000 on women and booze. The rest I wasted.”

Reply to  Crispin Pemberton-Pigott
October 9, 2021 4:55 am

Inflation is a beatch, 2 years ago the women and booze only would have cost $80,000.

Reply to  Crispin Pemberton-Pigott
October 9, 2021 8:40 am

I believe the quote is attributed to the great Manchester United football player, the late George Best (1946-2005).

October 8, 2021 3:55 am

Good God man, these climate jackals wont give it up! There could be a thousand reasons the ice is thin and CO2 ain’t one of them. Guaranteed!

October 8, 2021 5:04 am

This is a great inspiring article.I am pretty much pleased with your good work.You put really very helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging. Looking to reading your next post.

October 8, 2021 5:23 am

Where is the problem? Just give the I-Pads to the polar bears and let them do the interviews themselves.

Climate believer
October 8, 2021 5:46 am

“They claim their research program was hampered by thinner-than-necessary ice for safely landing the nearly 4,000 lb. outfitted helicopter (with crew and gear) in 2019 but that conditions in 2021 were even worse”

Totally unconvincing excuse designed to create alarmist media headlines.

Reply to  Climate believer
October 8, 2021 6:49 am

There was a time when explorers had no helicopters…

I bet their carbon footprint was considerably lower

Reply to  Climate believer
October 8, 2021 7:07 am

Considering that the helicopter crew are amazingly psychic in that they can glance at an ice flow far beneath them and judge it’s thickness.

And how that crew and it’s alleged polar bear researchers were unable, while over a sea of thick ice, to locate a suitable landing spot. Then following Pamela’s suggestion that the researchers use their feet for transport.

Talk about a bunch of prissy nancy boys and girls. Early polar explorers would be shamed that such losers claim to be polar researchers.

October 8, 2021 7:50 am

Sea fog is normally a product of cool water and warm air meeting at and near the ocean surface, not warm water and cold air. The warm air causes increased evaporation from the sea surface raising relative humidity, which then condenses into fog just above the ocean surface. For instance, the Pacific coast of the US and Canada is frequently fogged in during the summer months due to the cool Japanese current coming into contact with warmer summer air.

As Sam Clemmons (AKA Mark Twain) famously quipped, the coldest winter he ever knew was a summer in San Francisco!

Chris Nisbet
Reply to  Duane
October 8, 2021 10:26 am

Hmm, I wonder if this fog then increases the albedo in the area, reducing the amount of solar radiation warming the sea below.

Steve Z
October 8, 2021 9:01 am

[QUOTE FROM ARTICLE]”Not mentioned at all in this article is the fact that in spring in the Southern Beaufort, areas of thin ice or open water within regions of thick spring ice are essential to ringed and bearded seals as areas for breathing and resting on the ice between feeding bouts, and that polar bears are attracted to those areas because they are hunting hot-spots” [END QUOTE]

This begs the question of why the seals come to the Arctic coast to begin with. The seals most likely feed on fish, and fish living in that area would be attracted to open water as soon as it is available, since their food needs sunlight to grow, and oxygen levels in open water are likely higher in open water than in water under thick ice. The seals probably spend the winter farther south, where there is a more abundant food supply in open water.

The seals also come to the Arctic coast in spring to give birth to their pups, and open water near the coast is needed for them to come ashore. If the climate were to cool so much that there was never any open water all summer, the seals would be forced to give birth farther south, and the polar bears would starve (unless they moved farther south to follow the seals, but they would have competition from other predators).

The bottom line is that seals and polar bears both need a season when there is open water near the coast, possibly mixed with some thin ice floes. Neither of them can eat sea ice alone, so they depend on a period of open water for food. Any minor change in the climate will only affect WHEN in the spring the open water appears, but will not change whether or not sea ice melts in spring and re-freezes in autumn.

October 8, 2021 11:18 am

One polla bear two polla bear three polla bear ZZZeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Reply to  Eben
October 8, 2021 4:51 pm

cute little suckers
I want a pet polar bear.
I wonder what their favorite dry-land snack is?

Peter Fraser
October 11, 2021 3:07 pm

Fog would be a major limiting factor as no doubt the bears are located and probably darted from the chopper. If you can’t find the bears you can’ dart them

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