So, the world of weather and bears just keeps getting more complicated. While El Nino and La Nina have not really messed with the bears since the 1990s, we have a new weather phenomena poking its nose into the arctic.
The ‘North Pacific Mode’ seems to be responsible for a ‘warm blob’ of water in the Pacific. This mode drives cold, wet air to eastern North America and keeps the west (and Yukon and Alaska) fairly warm and dry. This blob is not quite as influential as an El Nino but it seems to be responsible for the extremes in the jet stream and possibly the Polar Vortexes. The Pacific Oscillation seems to have been growing in influence since the 1980s, so this could be its ‘peak’. Its pretty hard to understand this stuff anymore – El Ninos, Arctic Oscillations, Pacific Oscillations, Pacific Modes… I can tell you I was pretty excited when scientists finally just named something a ‘blob’. Anyway, its been two years of the blob, its not linked to human-induced climate change and, while it could disappear quite quickly, it may just hang around. In other words, we’re making this up as we go.
What does this mean for bears? Well, for the eastern Arctic, including western Hudson Bay, Davis Strait and Foxe Basin, its pretty good news. If polar vortexes and current weather patterns continue, I really do expect to see population growth in almost all populations in the east. Environment Canada recently (and kind of quietly) reclassified Churchill’s bears from ‘Declining’ to ‘Likely Stable’. The ‘blob’ might just tip the scales back in favour of our bears… we’ll see.
One population that is not thrilled with this news is the Southern Beaufort bears. If the jet stream remains high for a couple more years, we will see some real declines in this population – likely both in terms of survival/reproduction but also in terms of ‘leakage’ into the Chukchi sea area which has less people, more ice and more habitat. Southern Beaufort is already one of the hardest places to live for bears and early sea ice maps show major fractures in the ice north of Alaska, could be another record sea ice low this September.
Sea ice monitoring already shows that we’ve hit a ‘record’ low for spring sea ice as well, even if this is not really affecting bears. Things looked especially poor but sea ice rebounded late in March for an unexpected double peak (another surprise). Then again, these sea ice losses occur primarily in non-polar bear habitat so things are not really too bad this year – Barents Sea and Svalbard being the exception.
So, when we say the science is settled on climate change, I agree to some extent that almost everyone agrees that carbon dioxide emissions and the greenhouse effect are related and contributing to a warming climate. On the other hand, we are getting a bit of a lesson in the complexity of mother nature. I don’t think anyone expected ten solid years for Churchill’s bears or growth in Davis Strait and Foxe Basin. Its getting pretty hard to argue against the data. So, what I’m saying is, go blob go! 2-3 more years of polar vortex and blobs and I think we’re back up to 1200 bears in western Hudson Bay.