Svalbard polar bear research: Day 1

The foot of a polar bear, note the short and very sharp claws. Svalbard, Norway, April 2013

Jon Aars is a researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute, Norway’s main institution for research, environmental monitoring and mapping of the polar regions. With the support of WWF, Aars studies polar bear populations on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. Read all of  his field notes from a Spring 2013 research expedition, and follow the bears on our Polar Bear Tracker.

6th April – We were out for a short trip yesterday in Isfjorden, the fjord where Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard, is located. We did not encounter any bears, but it is always good to get started, to see that the helicopter is working and get all necessary gear on board. So today, we went out on a longer trip, and we flew south, to Van Mijenfjorden and Van Keulenfjorden. These two fjords on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of Svalbard, end in glaciers that stretch over to the east coast. Bears may cross over to the east frequently, where the water is colder and more bears are found. However, there are usually some bears also on the western side of the island, and particularly in spring.

The first part of the day, we did not encounter any bears, although we found some tracks. We spotted a ringed seal pup on the ice, far from the lair or from the closest breathing hole. It does happen they get too far away from the closest safe exit into the water, and the odds are then high they will be found by foxes, gulls or polar bears before they can escape.

After a couple of hours flying without encountering any bears, we finally found some fresh tracks in the outer part of Van Keulenfjorden. Here we found two adult females, only a few hundred meters apart, both on the sea ice on search for seals.

One was a seven year old female that had been earlier marked in the same area, originally in April 2008 as a two year old when still together with her mother. The other female was old, likely between 15 and 20 years of age, and not marked before. Accordingly, she got lip tattoos and ear marks so we will be able to recognize her if we capture her again another year. Finally, on a glacier, we found another old female, together with a one year old daughter. All the three adults were equipped with iridium telephone collars so we can follow their movements.