Deep winter habitat for polar bears within the Barents Sea raises warnings of additional human-bear battle

From polar bear science

Susan Crockford

There is plentiful sea ice in the Bering, Greenland and Labrador Seas, though less than usual in the Barents Sea because strong winds drove the ice north. Every time there’s a little less sea ice than usual, disaster researchers start to howl, but this time the rhetoric is a little different.

In total

On February 14, 2023, courtesy of NSIDC Masie

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

Greenland Sea and Barents Sea

On February 15, 2023, courtesy of Norwegian Ice Service

Strong winds — no melting ice — pushed ice north of Svalbard toward the pole and opened a polynya north of Franz Josef Land, resulting in a record low for sea ice in the Barents Sea on February 13:

Strong winds and waves recently pushed #arctic sea ice poleward in the Barents Sea, pushing the region to a new record low for the month of February.

In other words, this is the most open sea water for this time of year…

— Zack Labe (@ZLabe) February 13, 2023

For polar bears and other arctic species, however, this “most open water” metric is meaningless. A polynya anywhere in the Arctic at this time of year is a boon to wildlife: open water means rare feeding grounds 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 problematic incidents, not declining numbers. It’s not an entirely new concept (I first noticed it in 2013), but it’s taken a while to really catch on:

Even Andrew Derocher is on board:

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

Downside of healthy polar bear populations

It seems that these polar bear specialists today forget that there is a downside to healthy polar bear populations that I wrote about a few years ago. As the Inuit find, more bears mean more conflict with humans.

This is partly because independent young male polar bears (2-5 years) are less experienced hunters and occupy the lower end of the social hierarchy. Older, larger bears often steal their spring-killed young seals (Stirling 1974:1196)—perhaps leaving the teens without enough fat to see them through to the fall.

More hungry young males coming ashore in search of food is one of the possible consequences of living with a large, healthy population of polar bears. The biologist Ian Stirling warned of such problems as early as 1974:

“DR. Stirling believed that a complete cessation of hunting such as exists in Norway could increase conflicts between bear-men. dr Reimers countered that careful harvesting of polar bears is probably desirable, but the total ban now in place is largely an emotional and political decision, rather than a biological one. Four bears were killed in self-defense last year.” [1974 PBSG meeting “Norway – progress reported by [Thor] Larsen”; Anonymous 1976:11; my fat]


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.

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

Stirling, I., Cleator, H. and Smith, TG 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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