CANADA – Polar bears have been loitering by the Hudson Bay waiting for the month-late ice they need to hunt effectively. Lucky for them, a big storm is on the way that is expected to create the sea ice the polar bears are waiting for. Find out why the ice is late here. – Global Animal

Photo Credit: Canadian Classic Tours

Hundreds of polar bears were spotted on the west coast of Hudson Bay earlier this week, waiting for ice that is almost a month late forming.

But a fierce storm in the region Thursday has temperatures dropping and ice forming, which could be good news for the bears. “It’s just howling,” Luc Desjardins, of the Canadian Ice Service, says of the storm that could change the fortunes of the hungry bears.

Until the storm hit, record-breaking conditions in the western Arctic this fall had kept the ice at bay. Temperatures up to 14 C above normal in one Arctic region in November prevented the formation of ice which was almost a month behind schedule as of Monday, says Desjardins. He says the ice cover was the lowest since 1971, covering just 1.5 per cent of the sea, compared to the average of 20 per cent by mid-November.

Polar bears need sea ice to hunt for seals and other marine mammals. And after slim pickings on land in the summer, they are ready to get back on the ice come fall.

To get a read on the population, a helicopter survey was done Monday by conservation groups, Manitoba Conservation, and the York Factory First Nation Resource Management Board. The spotters counted 333 polar bears prowling the Manitoba coast of Hudson Bay.

Pete Ewins, an Arctic specialist for the World Wildlife Fund which helped co-ordinate the survey, says several “skinny bears” ended up in the “bear jail” in Churchill, Man., in September after scrounging for food where they were not welcome.

But the bears spotted in the survey appeared in “reasonably good condition,” says Ewins. They were mostly males, as females with cubs tend to steer clear of the males and travel inland.

“It is not a catastrophe about to happen tomorrow,” Ewins says of toll the ice delay will take on the bears. “But the longer the ice is in returning, of course, the more bears are going to be in very weak condition when they actually make it out on the sea ice.” The “enduring concern,” he says, is late ice in Hudson Bay is an increasingly common phenomenon, that is linked to climate change.

Desjardins says the ice has been late forming for several years running, in large part because Arctic air temperatures have been so warm. From October 2009 to April 2010, the Baffin Bay was on average 7 C above normal.

“It was tremendously warm in the Arctic during the past winter,” Desjardins said, noting that the ice melted faster last spring, allowing the water to absorb more heat, which is now delaying formation of new ice.

This fall the trend has continued with the average temperature in Nunavut’s Northern Foxe Basin 14 C above normal in November, he said.

But Desjardins says that ice conditions in Hudson Bay can — and are — changing quickly. This week’s storm has temperatures dropping so fast that a fringe of thin ice almost 20 kilometres wide has formed along parts of the coast since Monday.

It cold conditions persist he says thick ice could form over the next few weeks and may even catch up to normal. “It all depends on what Mother Nature throws at us,” Desjardins.