Little ice, few cubs

Since 2003, WWF has partnered with the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) to  track Svalbard polar bears by satellite.  The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, rapidly altering the sea ice that polar bears depend upon. This research helps scientists understand how polar bears are adapting to changing ice conditions. NPI conducts field research each April. This winter’s stunningly warm temperatures and low ice levels around Svalbard already appear to be having an effect on the resident bears. Jon Aars, a polar bear biologist with NPI, shares his stories and photos from the field.

Kongsøya is a very important denning area for polar bears, and polar bears here have been protected from hunting since 1939. Snow drifts over the flat mountain tops and accumulates in the steep lee sides. Here the bears dig dens into the snow in autumn. Photo: Jon Aars / NPI

April 10, 2016 – We have handled a few bears in the last days, but most days have had variable weather. Thus, we haven’t had many long days in the field. There has been a bit of walking between the coffee machine and the bridge of the boat, staring through the windows.

For the first time in April in the 14 years I have been in field in the area, we sailed to Kongsøya. Usually there is far too much ice around, but this year the ice was rarely more than 50cm thick, and in many places much thinner. Kongsøya is traditionally a very important denning area for polar bears, but in years when sea ice forms late in the year, fewer females reach the island in time for denning. Sea ice did not form in time last autumn, so we expected few dens, and few females with small cubs.

We were right. We found one den only, and despite seeing a lot of tracks that seemed to be both fresh and old, in only one place did we see the tracks of a female with a cub. We did however find adult bears on the island, five in total.

When we capture bears on the islands further west in the Archipelago, where we have been doing field work most years, we tend to have a lot of recaptures. Last time NPI captured a reasonable number of polar bears here, however, was in 2000, and likely most of those bears have died by now. It was thus not a surprise that all five were new bears that we handled for the first time. Two were females, and they were fitted with collars for satellite telemetry. It will be exciting to follow their movement – they will likely move a lot more than most bears we collar further west.

Svenskeøya is the other of the two larger islands of Kong Karls Land. Polar bears also den here. Note the rather thin and newly formed sea ice surrounding the island. Photo: Jon Aars / NPI

Just west of Kongsøya is Svenskeøya, also a denning area. We did not see any bears on Svenskeøya, but we did find 99 reindeer. The reindeer population there was founded by a few migrants from further west a few decades ago, walking over the sea ice. But they never made it further east to Kongsøya, despite a quite limited distance.