Low mid-winter polar bear habitat in Barents Sea spawns warnings of more human-bear conflicts

From Polar Bear Science

Susan Crockford

There’s abundant sea ice in the Bering, Greenland and Labrador Seas, although less than usual in the Barents Sea because strong winds drove the ice north. Any time there is a bit less sea ice than usual the catastrophists begin caterwauling but this time the rhetoric is a little different.


At 14 Feb 2023, courtesy NSIDC Masie

Pretty typical for this time of year except for the Barents Sea (more details below) and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada (where there are no bears).

Greenland Sea and the Barents Sea

At 15 February 2023, courtesy Norwegian Ice Service

Strong winds–not melting ice–pushed ice north of Svalbard towards the pole and opened up a polynya north of Franz Josef Land caused a record low for sea ice in the Barents Sea on 13 February:

However, this “most open water” metric is meaningless for polar bears and other Arctic species. A polynya anywhere in the Arctic at this time of year is a blessing for wildlife: open water means a rare feeding area for fish, birds, seals, and polar bears (Stirling 1997; Stirling et al. 1981).

New dominant narrative

As I noted on twitter yesterday, a new narrative is emerging as the dominant explanation for what low sea ice means for polar bears, nudging you to expect more polar bear attacks and problem incidents, not declining numbers. It’s not an entirely new concept (I noticed it first in 2013) but has taken a while to really catch on:

Even Andrew Derocher is onboard:

“Poor ice conditions for polar bears at Svalbard this year. Low ice will make tough hunting conditions this coming spring. Time to plan for more human-bear conflicts unless conditions change.” [13 Feb 2023 tweet, my bold]

Down-side of healthy polar bear populations

It seems these polar bear specialists today are forgetting there’s a down-side to healthy polar bear populations, as I wrote about a few years ago. As Inuit are finding, more bears means more conflicts with humans.

In part, that’s because independent young male polar bears (2-5 years) are less experienced hunters and occupy the bottom of the social hierarchy. Older, bigger bears often take their spring kills of young seals away from them (Stirling 1974:1196) – potentially leaving the teenagers without enough fat to see them through until fall.

More hungry young males coming ashore looking for food is one of the potential consequences of living with a large, healthy population of polar bears. Biologist Ian Stirling warned of such problems back in 1974:

“Dr. Stirling felt that complete cessation of hunting, such as exists in Norway, may increase bear-man conflicts. Dr. Reimers replied that the careful harvesting of polar bears was probably desirable, but the total ban now in effect was largely an emotional and political decision rather than a biological one. Last year four bears were killed in self-defense.” [1974 PBSG meeting “Norway – progress reported by [Thor] Larsen”; Anonymous 1976:11; my bold]


Anonymous. 1976. Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 5th meeting of the Polar Bear Specialists Group IUCN/SSC, 3-5 December, 1974, Le Manoir, St. Prex, Switzerland. Gland, Switzerland IUCN.

Stirling, I. 1974. Midsummer observations on the behavior of wild polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Canadian Journal of Zoology 52: 1191-1198. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/z74-157#.VR2zaOFmwS4

Stirling, I. 1997. The importance of polynyas, ice edges, and leads to marine mammals and birds. Journal of Marine Systems 10: 9-21.

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.

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February 19, 2023 2:20 am

The Guardian sums it up

“”World risks descending into a climate ‘doom loop’, warn thinktanks””

Better warn the bears

Reply to  strativarius
February 19, 2023 6:45 am

Maybe send more Guardian staff to report from Bakhmut along with UN looper staff.

Reply to  strativarius
February 19, 2023 8:25 am

‘doom loop’…..always coming up with new crisis connotations to sprinkle in their stories, these folks….

Ron Long
February 19, 2023 2:40 am

Good report by Dr. Susan. Whatever the cause of the encounter, in a conflict between a polar bear and a human you do not want to be in second place.

Reply to  Ron Long
February 19, 2023 4:11 am

Second place is fine so long as there are more than two of you. You certainly don’t want last place, though.

Ron Long
Reply to  Oldseadog
February 19, 2023 6:51 am

You’re onto something there, Oldseadog, I have told many persons that I always have a “special” assistant when working in bear country. They usually ask “like a good shot with a rifle?, and I answer “no, some old guy that can’t run as fast as I can.

Reply to  Oldseadog
February 19, 2023 10:14 am

Ha! Three years ago we were at Yellowstone. A Grizzley was on a hillside near a pull off and there was a crowd watching it dig for roots or grubs or something it was eating. It seemed totally unconcerned with the crowd that had gathered to watch it.

My wife was concerned though since that bear was less than 50 yards away. She was worried it might take notice of us and charge. I told her to look around! There are plenty of people around us that are slower than we are! She got the point and worried no more.

Reply to  Ron Long
February 19, 2023 10:32 am

Always view polar bears with a friend,
that you can run faster than.

Carry a salmon fish in your pocket to throw at the bear
if he or she starts chasing you. If there’s no bear chase,
the lady explorers will be impressed: “Is that a salmon
in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”

Do not poke a polar bear with a stick to see if they are awake.

To accurately count polar bears, spray paint a number on them with black paint first. Hire leftists to do the spray painting because they are the best graffiti artists. Then yo count the bears safely from an airplane.

This post is serious, not sarcasm.

Last edited 1 month ago by Richard Greene
February 19, 2023 4:54 am

Dr. Stirling felt that complete cessation of hunting, such as exists in Norway, may increase bear-man conflicts.

That’s true as far as it goes. Bear-man conflicts are rarer than you would think. Polar bears usually avoid people. It’s the young inexperienced bears who are willing to approach humans. Once they’ve been made to feel unwelcome, they stay away.

Importantly, the above fact was pointed out to me by one of Ian Stirling’s co-workers. 🙂

In the years I traveled to the arctic, our camp was visited twice. On both occasions we were able to drive the bears away by making loud noises with whatever artillery we had on hand (we had a lot). The trick is to not actually hit the bear with a bullet. Do that and you’ll spend the rest of your life filling in paperwork. The advice I got was that, if you had to shoot a bear, you’d better leave powder burns.

Wikipedia has a list of fatal bear attacks in North America. link For polar bears, such incidents occur only a couple of times per decade. The chances of dying from hypothermia are much much greater. link

February 19, 2023 6:42 am

It can’t be as dangerous as a Tesla on autopilot approaching the scene of a previous accident….

story tip

A Tesla driver in California died early Saturday morning after crashing into a firetruck on an interstate highway, an accident that comes as U.S. regulators are scrutinizing Tesla vehicle crashes with stationary emergency vehicles. 
The Tesla crashed into a Contra Costa County Fire Protection District truck, which was parked across two lanes to block traffic while police officers assisted with towing a vehicle, said a spokeswoman for the fire-protection district. The accident occurred on Interstate 680 at around 4 a.m.
The Tesla’s driver was pronounced dead at the scene, the spokeswoman said. A passenger riding in the Tesla was transported to the hospital in critical condition. That person’s condition couldn’t immediately be determined.
Four firefighters were wearing seat belts in the truck at the time of collision. All were transported to the hospital with minor injuries and have since been released, said the spokeswoman. The firetruck sustained major damage and was towed from the scene.

Dave Fair
Reply to  ResourceGuy
February 19, 2023 9:12 am

Is “awaiting for approval” the same as “Waiting for Godot?” Does one get the same outcome as waiting for Godot?

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