Polar Bear Blog – Breaking Up is Hard to Do

The Churchill River is getting close to breaking this year, probably a bit early although mid-June seems to be fairly normal but nothing earth shattering.  The river upstream from the weir is pretty open now with a lot of water pouring over the weir and, of course, rolling more boulders into the river estuary.  No one will say that the Churchill weir was a really effective engineering plan but it does keep rock truck drivers in business and Mike Lawson, Churchill’s explosives expert, occasionally entertained.

As for Hudson Bay itself, well, looking out from the Town Complex beach, it sure looks like an early breakup.  There has been a really nice floe edge near town for much of this spring, with seals appearing late in the season.  A polar bear mother with two cubs was spotted feasting on a bearded seal not far from town.  The floe edge in Arviat remains very close as well, with a few more bears spotted up there.

Of course, looks can be deceiving and while the Churchill area will record and ‘early breakup’, the same cannot be said for the rest of Hudson Bay.  In fact, this is an epic ice year, one of the best in the last twenty years it seems, like as in right up there with 1991/92 and the Pinatubo bears.  Up in Arviat, they were just commenting how thick the ice was for their ice fishing derby, the thickest they have seen in many years.

For the scientific side of stuff, here are the Canadian Ice Service Charts.  This one is the current ice cover for Hudson Bay as of June 2, 2014.

Ice Cover Hudson Bay June

These show the historical ice coverage for Hudson Bay for early June as compared to 2014.

June Seasonal Ice 2014

Historical Ice Hudson Bay June

1.7 million square kilometres of ice.  That looks pretty good to me.

Of course, anything can happen.  If a heat wave hits Churchill – yes that can happen, the ice can melt quickly.  Then again, if it stays cold and say, maybe snows on June 5th – yes that did happen, then this could very well be the best ice year in over a decade, maybe even twenty years.

As with everything in nature, there is a caveat.  If you look at the sea ice map or look out your window in Churchill, you can see that the ice looks like its ‘ready to go’, as in that breakup is approaching quickly.  This, in a sense, is true.  The ice along the coast from Churchill down to York Factory is much thinner than normal, I would say mostly due to changing wind patterns moreso than warm temperatures.

Right now, this open water and thin ice means that bears are hunting along the coastal ice from Arviat down to Nanuk Lodge on Kaskatamagan (Cape Tatnum).  Life is good.

Large Male at Nanuk Lodge

For the big males, it will be a fat and happy spring.  Even for subadults and sibling pairs, they will do well scavenging and riding the ice.  Some, of course, will make the wrong decision and end up on shore near Churchill far too early, but that’s the way it goes.

Mothers and cubs might face a bit of a challenge near Churchill.  In northern Hudson Bay (Foxe Basin) and Southern Hudson Bay, they will also have good years but the western Hudson Bay families have a decision to make.

Most years, pregnant females (there should be a lot of them this year…) and mothers with cubs generally swim ashore as the ice passes by Wapusk National Park, coming ashore about two weeks earlier than the males that ride the ice south.  This year, the ice is already pretty much gone in this region.  Do they still swim ashore to their familiar denning territory or will their instincts tell them to stay out longer?  Experienced bears will probably win this dice roll, new mothers likely won’t.

The vast amounts of ice along Labrador and Baffin Island are skewing this rating a bit… but they do this in bad ice years as well so that can kind of be discounted a bit.  And, well, these are still just charts and stuff… still that ‘stuff’ predicts that the last ice in Hudson Bay will remain until mid-August…  

To me, it seems pretty clear that this will be an absolute banner year for the Davis Strait and Foxe Basin populations, an extremely good year for Southern Hudson Bay bears and hopefully a very good year for Western Hudson Bay as well.  Great news actually…

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