Polar Bear Blog – As El Nino Goes

This winter has been interesting to see how media and online sources are talking about not just El Nino but the Arctic Oscillation as well.  For me, this is pretty neat.  When I started driving Tundra Buggy in 1999, no one really had any idea what an El Nino was or what effect it would really have, Arctic Oscillation was actually something only talked about by ‘climate change deniers’ ha.  The 1999 era was taken as proof that global warming was here and the polar bears were doomed.

So, its nice to see that climate is finally being recognized as a complex and mysterious system.  We even use the term climate change now instead of global warming.  Interesting.

Anyway, whatever you call it, El Nino usually means bad news for polar bears so let’s see where we are right now.  Folks up in Churchill are still reporting open water near the town and an unseasonable amount of south winds.  Temperatures are a bit lower than November but it is still pretty warm however you look at it.

Checking out the sea ice map below (ice cover in red and orange), you can see the result of El Nino’s change in weather and wind patterns.  Ice is packed into the northern half of Hudson Bay and has been for about a month now, good news for Foxe Basin bears.   While a lot of open water remains, the thin red line along the coast, the shore ice, is good news for polar bears.



Churchill’s bears left about a week or ten days late, not bad for an El Nino year.  Looking further south, you can see ice has now reached James Bay as well, including Akimiski Island, some of the most prime real estate for the Southern Hudson Bay population.  I would venture that basically all of the polar bears living in Hudson Bay are back on the ice, even if there’s not a lot in their region.

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This map below demonstrates the departure from ‘normal’ freeze that El Nino brings.  There is A LOT less ice for the Western Hudson Bay and Southern Hudson Bay polar bears.  You’ve got about 2,000 bears still fairly close to shore, or possibly leaving their traditional territories.  Two radio collared family groups have ventured far north towards Rankin and Chesterfield Inlet but maybe they are just avoiding the researchers and commotion around Churchill.  Who knows…


At this rate, Hudson Bay should freeze over by the end of December, maybe a bit late but not too bad.  Looking to the east, you can see that the Davis Strait population out by Baffin Island and Labrador is likely having a very good year, with more ice than usual extending out into the Atlantic.  Dark blue areas indicate much more ice than normal years.

Across the arctic, it doesn’t look too bad.  Svalbard (Norway) seems to be getting the worst of it but this population has also been known to range quite far chasing the ice.  East Barents and Kara Sea look to be locked in so maybe things aren’t absolutely terrible over there.  Still, at least, from the maps, it doesn’t look great.  Then again, its always tough to tell the real story from satellite images…

Everywhere else for polar bears looks okay.  A very strong storm in the Bering Sea could disperse a lot of the ice for the Chukchi bear population, between Alaska and Russia, but they seem pretty resilient.



The real worry with El Nino, however, is not so much freezeup – however, this year has already been better for Churchill’s bears than the last two major El Ninos in 1982-83 and 1997-98.  The real challenge for the bears will come in the spring.  With ice formation in western and southern Hudson Bay about a month behind schedule, it will take a very severe winter to catch up on ice thickness.  If we get a warm El Nino spring, this ice could melt very quickly.

The one upside is that a warm spring should also mean a successful berry crop and this would help sustain mothers and cubs through the long, hot wait on land.  Still looks like its going to be a pretty tough slog though… we’ll see.



3 thoughts on “Polar Bear Blog – As El Nino Goes”

  1. Hi Kelsey!
    My students and I are anxious to know if Xena has had her collar removed. Also, has Andy’s collar been removed off Alaskan coast? Appreciate your updates.
    Best wishes, Tommy

    1. Nothing official on Xena, the researchers and Manitoba Conservation felt that her collar was fitted correctly anyway. As well, I haven’t heard any update on Andy other than that Derocher might head out this spring to try and find him on the ice… but that’s a needle in a haystack. Probably have to wait until next fall to see if he shows up at Kaktovik.

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