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Old bears and new

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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.

April 26, 2016 – After many days with wind from the north, when the fjords facing that direction were mostly covered in sea fog, today we finally had great weather. We knew we had a few bears in that area that we hadn’t captured when we first started this year’s field work. It was a very pleasant day at only a few degrees below zero.

We did spot a few of the bears we handled earlier, identified by temporary painted numbers on their bums. In addition, we found five different bears that were not marked. Three of those we captured: an adult male we know well from the area, a very local adult female we used to see almost every year, and a two year old bear that we never met before.

In addition, in Raudfjorden, furthest north-west on Spitsbergen, we met two adult males we were not able to capture. The ice was really rotten, and the bears went through the ice or dived and broke through it from time to time. It is dangerous to both bears and people to work in such conditions.

Walruses from north Spitsbergen. Photo: Jon Aars / NPIWalruses from north Spitsbergen. Photo: Jon Aars / NPI

There was plenty of other wildlife to see, from arctic foxes to walruses and belugas. We also spotted a lot of bird life, including the endemic rock ptarmigans that seems to have had a very good year with high winter survival. Tomorrow we will at most have a short day in field, and then April next year will be our next chance to meet our bears again. The season has been good, with 75 bears handled, and many nice days in the field in scenic areas of the Arctic.

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