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Press Release: All polar bears across the Arctic face shorter sea ice season

14 September 2016

Polar bear tests the strength of thin sea ice in the Arctic
Polar bear tests the strength of thin sea ice in the Arctic (Credit: Mario Hoppmann, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Polar bears are among the animals most affected by changes in Arctic sea ice because they rely on this surface for essential activities such as hunting, traveling and breeding. A new study by University of Washington researchers, funded by NASA, finds a trend toward earlier sea ice melt in the spring and later ice growth in the autumn across all 19 polar bear populations, which can negatively impact the feeding and breeding capabilities of the bears. The paper, to appear September 14 in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union, is the first to quantify the sea ice changes in each polar bear subpopulation across the entire Arctic region using metrics that are specifically relevant to polar bear biology.

“This study shows declining sea ice for all subpopulations of polar bears,” said co-author Harry Stern, a researcher with the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center. “We have used the same metric across all of the polar bear subpopulations in the Arctic so we can compare and contrast, for example, the Hudson Bay region with the Baffin Bay region using the same metric.”

The analysis shows that the critical timing of the sea ice break-up and sea ice freeze-up is changing across all areas in a direction that is harmful for polar bears.

Nineteen separate polar bear populations live throughout the Arctic, spending their winters and springs roaming on sea ice and hunting. The bears have evolved mainly to eat seals, which provide necessary fats and nutrients in the harsh Arctic environment. Polar bears can’t outswim their prey, so instead they perch on the ice as a platform and ambush seals at breathing holes or break through the ice to access their dens.

“Sea ice really is their platform for life,” said co-author Kristin Laidre, also a researcher at the Polar Science Center. “They are capable of existing on land for part of the year, but the sea ice is where they obtain their main prey.”

The new study published in The Cryosphere draws upon 35 years of satellite data showing daily sea-ice concentration in the Arctic. Across all 19 polar bear populations, the researchers found that the total number of ice-covered days declined at the rate of 7 to 19 days per decade between 1979 and 2014. Sea ice concentration during the summer months—an important measure because summertime is when some subpopulations are forced to fast on land—also declined in all regions, by 1 percent to 9 percent per decade.

The most striking result, researchers said, is the consistent trend across all polar bear regions for an earlier spring ice melt and a later autumn freeze-up. Arctic sea ice retreats in the springtime as daylight reappears and temperatures warm. In the autumn months the ice sheets build again as temperatures drop.

“These spring and fall transitions bound the period when there is good ice habitat available for bears to feed,” Laidre said. “Those periods are also tied to the breeding season when bears find mates, and when females come out of their maternity dens with very small cubs and haven’t eaten for months.”

The researchers found that on average, spring melting was three to nine days earlier per decade, and autumn freeze-up was three to nine days later per decade. That corresponds to a roughly 3 ½ week shift at either end—and seven weeks of total loss of good sea ice habitat for polar bears—over the 35 years of Arctic sea ice data.

“We expect that if the trends continue, compared with today, polar bears will experience another six to seven weeks of ice-free periods by mid-century,” Stern said. The trend appears to be linear and isn’t accelerating or leveling off, he added.

The study’s results currently are used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s polar bear specialist group, which completes assessments of polar bears and issues the species’ conservation status. The researchers plan to update their findings each year as new ice coverage data are available.

“It’s nice to see this work being used in high-level conservation goals,” Laidre said.

The study was funded by NASA and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

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Please mention the name of the publication (The Cryosphere) if reporting on this story and, if reporting online, include a link to the paper (http://www.the-cryosphere.net/10/2027/2016/) or to the journal website (http://www.the-cryosphere.net).

More information

This research is presented in the paper ‘Sea-ice indicators of polar bear habitat’, published in the EGU open access journal The Cryosphere on 14 September 2016.

Citation: Stern, H. L. and Laidre, K. L.: Sea-ice indicators of polar bear habitat, The Cryosphere, doi:10.5194/tc-10-2027-2016, 2016

The team is composed of Harry L. Stern (Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington) and Kristin L. Laidre (Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington & Greenland Institute of Natural Resources).

The research was funded through the following programmes and grants: Development and Testing of Potential Indicators for the National Climate Assessment (NASA): NNX13AN28G & Climate and Biological Response (NASA): NNX11A063G.

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) is Europe’s premier geosciences union, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences for the benefit of humanity, worldwide. It is a non-profit interdisciplinary learned association of scientists founded in 2002. The EGU has a current portfolio of 17 diverse scientific journals, which use an innovative open access format, and organises a number of topical meetings, and education and outreach activities. Its annual General Assembly is the largest and most prominent European geosciences event, attracting over 11,000 scientists from all over the world. The meeting’s sessions cover a wide range of topics, including volcanology, planetary exploration, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, energy, and resources. The EGU 2017 General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria, from 23 to 28 April 2017. For information about meeting and press registration, please check http://media.egu.eu closer to the time of the conference, or follow the EGU on Twitter and Facebook.

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The Cryosphere is an international scientific journal dedicated to the publication and discussion of research articles, short communications, and review papers on all aspects of frozen water and ground on Earth and on other planetary bodies. The main subject areas are ice sheets and glaciers, planetary ice bodies, permafrost, river and lake ice, seasonal snow cover, sea ice, remote sensing, numerical modelling, in situ and laboratory studies of the above and including studies of the interaction of the cryosphere with the rest of the climate system.

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Contact

Kristin Laidre
Researcher at the Polar Science Center, University of Washington
Seattle, US
Email: klaidre@uw.edu

Harry Stern (unavailable on Sept. 14 from about 6 p.m. to midnight CEST)
Researcher at the Polar Science Center, University of Washington
Seattle, US
Email: hstern@uw.edu

Michelle Ma
Assistant Director, Office of News & Information, University of Washington
University of Washington
Phone: +1-206-543-2580
Email: mcma@uw.edu

Bárbara Ferreira
EGU Media and Communications Manager
Munich, Germany
Phone: +49-89-2180-6703
Email: media@egu.eu
EGU on Twitter: @EuroGeosciences

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