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Breaking out of the ice

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Walruses on ice, Svalbard. © Brutus Ostling / WWF-CanonWalruses on ice, Svalbard. © Brutus Ostling / WWF-Canon

From April 11 to 21, 2014, join a Norwegian Polar Institute and WWF-Canon scientific expedition to collect critical data about Europe’s most westerly polar bear population. The population on and around the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is facing a future without summer sea ice. See all posts from the expedition here.

After a successful morning of capture work yesterday, two adult males and one adult female, we decide to head back west. The Lance had pushed into the first year ice pack about 100 meters in lieu of anchoring. Now she proceeds to break free from the ice that has refrozen again around us. A combination of forward and reverse motion with specially designed air jets along the side help break up the young ice just enough for us to turn the ship and head back out into the open sea.

The ship will motor overnight up Hinlopenstretet and then down Wijdefjorden. Our goal is to get close enough to Longyearbyen that the research team from NPI can fly directly across the mountains and retrieve a new shipment of satellite collars that was delayed from the manufacturer. On their return they will look for a female that was collared last year and has a maternal den near the head of the fjord.

As we sail north, the weather turns south quickly. Sun, blue skies, and fairly flat seas are replaced by swirling clouds, snow blowing horizontally, and churning seas that soon start to break over the ship’s bow. With a tall, 3 story structure, the Lance leans from the wind like a vessel under sail, pitching and rolling as she slowly makes her way into the squall. We turn south into Wijdefjorden just before bed time and find much smoother sailing overnight.

The view in the morning has changed for the better and the ship sits quietly next to an area of new ice. We are surrounded by steep, snow covered mountains in a fairly narrow fjord- the longest on Svalbard. A few early risers were rewarded with a glimpse of a polar bear walking along the far eastern shore- the first we have seen from the ship- fantastic!

Once the capture crew heads off for the day, we will spend some time processing a sample of snow to test a potentially useful new genetic technique- obtaining viable DNA from polar bear footprints. This is a pilot effort we are trying in Norway and in the US to determine the feasibility and accuracy of the proposed method. It’s a collaboration with a French genetics lab that has shown this is possible with other species. If successful in the testing phase, this technique could be used in the more remote parts of the Arctic where we lack basic information or the capacity for monitoring. It would also be an excellent tool for community based efforts as sample collection and preservation is very straightforward. I would love to try a similar technique for collection of genetic material from polar bear dens in the coming years.

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