Polar Bear Sea Ice Habitat Near the End of Arctic Spring 2023

From Polar Bear Science

Susan Crockford

Arctic sea ice is beginning to melt and the end of spring is drawing near. Mating season is over for polar bears as is the gorging on young seals in most regions as weaned pups head into open water to feed for themselves. Only predator-savvy adult and subadult seals remain on the ice while they moult a new hair coat, so successful hunts by most polar bears will become more and more uncommon (e.g. Obbard et al. 2016).

Wild polar bear on pack ice in Arctic sea close up

Arctic sea ice overall

Sea ice thickness

Where red bits are 5m thick and even the green/yellow is 2.5-3.5m. This thick ice is not likely to melt over the summer but it can get broken up and flushed out of the Arctic by winds and currents, where it will melt in warmer waters.

The graph below shows that sea ice extent for May 2023, according to NSIDC compared to previous years, is only slightly less than it was in 1989 and 1995:

Sea ice Canada

Open water leads and polynyas in the sea ice, which are clearly visible in the ice chart below, are now important areas for polar bears to attempt to hunt, because these highly productive areas attract seals (Stirling et al. 1981).

Barents and Kara SeasEast Greenland

Svalbard subregion

Ice extent around Svalbard is declining, as it does every year about this time:

However, there is still abundant ice in the eastern and northern regions around Svalbard for polar bears to continue hunting attempts:


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 2:15-32. 10.1139/AS-2015-0027 http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/AS-2015-0027#.VvFtlXpUq50

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 from the Stirling and Cleator volume here.

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June 9, 2023 12:15 am

Have the bears been told it’s too late to save them? / sarc

Richard Page
June 9, 2023 5:57 am

It’s an odd thing – until somebody pointed it out a few days ago, I hadn’t really considered just how land-locked and constrained the Arctic habitat truly was. And yet so many species thrive in such an inhospitable region; it’s awe-inspiring. That the Polar Bears are being exploited by the research groups, wildlife charities and climate enthusiasts for their own ends (usually a fat profit) does get me a bit annoyed quite frankly.

John Hultquist
Reply to  Richard Page
June 10, 2023 8:27 am

” inhospitable region
 Anthropomorphizing, me thinks.
I was talking to a PB just last week, and she made a similar comment about your habitat.

Richard Page
Reply to  John Hultquist
June 10, 2023 3:42 pm

Trust me, I’m thinking a similar thing about my habitat what with everything that’s going on.
It’s not anthropomorphising though – I haven’t suggested they’re chubby people in fur coats: I think you just called me out for habitat bias!

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