Are the hundreds of polar bears spending the summer on Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea starving and desperate for any scrap of food?
Hardly! Photos taken by Russian tourists on a cruise ship (19 September 2017) show a huge number of already-fat, healthy bears converging on a dead bowhead whale washed up on a beach.
Most of these bears would have been without food since at least early August when the last sea ice disappeared around the island and will return to the ice by November.
The extraordinary sight was witnessed by tourists on an Arctic cruise aboard the Finnish-built MV Akademik Shokalskiy.
A source at Wrangel Island Nature Reserve said: “There were at least 230 polar bears, including single males, single females, mothers with cubs and even two mothers with four cubs each.”
Experts called the sight of so many polar bears together “unique”.
The huge number could in fact amount to as much one percent of the entire world’s population of the creatures.
Tourists initially thought the bears were a flock of sheep after viewing them from a distance, The Siberian Times reports.
But as the boat drew closer, the lucky holidaymakers realized what they were witnessing.
Fat cubs of the year are seen in the photo below, from the Siberian Times story:
A self-proclaimed science-based news site (LiveScience, 29 September) that picked up the story of this unique event had the temerity to suggest the bears might have been “hungrier than usual” due to global warming.
It deliberately conflates predictions of future starving bears due to low sea ice levels with this observation of many obviously not-starving bears checking out an attractive food source (my bold):
“It’s unclear, however, whether climate change had made these particular bears hungrier than usual. The frequency of starving polar bears is expected to increase as the climate warms and sea ice declines — not just because of climate change directly, but because ice loss is taking away seals, their main food source, Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying polar bears, told Live Science in 2015.”
Except that there is no evidence that ice loss is “taking seals away” — certainly not in the Chukchi Sea. Chukchi Sea seals have been found to be doing better with less ice than they were when there was more ice in the 1980s.
More below, including the location of Wrangel Island and sea ice maps.
UPDATE 2 October 2017: Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has been lower this summer than over the last few years but the polar bears spending the ice-free season on Wrangel Island are still in good to excellent condition:
Sea ice is not likely to return to Wrangel Island until sometime in November (see below), which means the polar bears that seek refuge on the island when the sea ice melts back in summer face an extended on-shore period just like polar bears routinely do in Hudson Bay, Davis Strait, and the Baffin Bay.
Because polar bears usually eat little to nothing during the summer, this period of fasting is entirely normal and an event most of the bears are well equipped to endure (as long as they were able to consume lots of seals in the spring).
Last year, sea ice returned to Wrangel Island by mid-November:
Wrangel Island is the primary denning area for the Chukchi Sea subpopulation.
The current position of the sea ice (30 September 2017), so it may take only 3-4 weeks before the sea ice returns and polar bears can resume hunting seals:
Read more at Polar Bear Science