Polynyas are Critical for Polar Bear Spring Feeding

From Polar Bear Science

Dr. Susan Crockford

Areas of open water or thin ice in spring are essential for the survival of Arctic species, as I emphasized in my recent peer-reviewed paper on polar bear ecology. Sea ice is still abundant in spring (April-June), which is the critical feeding period for polar bears: they must consume about 2/3 of the total calories they need for the entire year. Most of those calories come from newborn seals (ringed, bearded, and harp).

In southern areas, such as Hudson Bay and Davis Strait, virtually all of this feeding is completed by the end of May, making June a time of opportunistic hunting for most bears: if they find a seal, they will kill and eat it but if not, they can do without. That’s not just my opinion but the reason given by polar bear specialists themselves to explain why Southern Hudson Bay polar bear numbers had not declined in the 2000s despite a sudden increase in the ice-free season:

…even though break-up has advanced by up to 3-4 weeks in portions of Hudson Bay it still occurs no earlier than late June or early July so does not yet interfere with opportunities to feed on neonate ringed seal pups that are born in March-April in eastern Hudson Bay. Therefore, losing days or weeks of hunting opportunities during June and July deprives polar bears of the opportunity to feed on adult seals, but does not deprive them of the critical spring period when they are truly hyperphagic. [Obbard et al. 2016:29]

Polynyas worldwide

From my paper, without the labels (Crockford 2022, open access). Some polynyas, like the huge area off Siberia, are not often actually open water but areas of thin ice that seals and bears can break through easily. Because of that, they are often difficult to spot on sea ice charts.

Sea ice at mid-May

Canada (15 May 2022)

Arctic as a whole (15 May 2022)

Closeups by region (13 May 2022)

Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort (13 May 2022)

Barents/Kara Seas (13 May 2022)

Canadian East Coast/Western Greenland (13 May 2022)


Crockford, S. J. 2022. Polar bear fossil and archaeological records from the Pleistocene and Holocene in relation to sea ice extent and open water polynyas. Open Quaternary 8(7): 1-26. https://doi.org.10.5334/oq.107

Obbard, M.E., Cattet, M.R.I., Howe, E.J., Middel, K.R., Newton, E.J., Kolenosky, G.B., Abraham, K.F. and Greenwood, C.J. 2016. Trends in body condition in polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from the Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation in relation to changes in sea ice. Arctic Science 2(1):15-32. https://doi.org/10.1139/as-2015-0027

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It doesn't add up...
May 18, 2022 2:27 pm

The ice has stayed behind much longer this year. It’s actually within shouting distance of the 1981-2010 mean on the DMI extent plot.


Rud Istvan
May 18, 2022 4:53 pm

She is obviously right. I am a big fan of her. Shows that ‘polar bear specialists’ just are not. Wrote it up a decade ago in essay ’ Polar Bears’ in ebook Blowing Smoke.

Ron Long
May 18, 2022 5:52 pm

Thanks, Dr. Susan. However, I am left wondering why the CAGW crowd adopted the Polar Bear as their Poster Child and not the Ringed or Harp seals? Those Polar Bears, an Apex Predator, are obviously from the politically conservative side, and the helpless seals are victims. Clueless I am.

Reply to  Ron Long
May 18, 2022 6:08 pm

White privilege?

Reply to  Scissor
May 18, 2022 9:58 pm


Hmmm, surely they should have adopted seals of colour?

Reply to  Redge
May 19, 2022 5:43 am

Especially the gay ones, for diversity and justice.

May 18, 2022 6:45 pm

Seals are the McDonalds hamburger for Polar Bears, Killer Whales and Sharks. And that has nothing to do with climate change.

Robert B
May 18, 2022 9:07 pm

Not sure that hyperphagia is the right word. If they eat significantly less than they do, they don’t make it to the next spring. Hardly gluttony.

Ireneusz Palmowski
May 19, 2022 10:43 pm
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