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. You can follow the bears here.
This has been a winter like no other for the polar bears of Svalbard. Temperatures on the archipelago broke records this fall and winter, reaching 20-30 degrees C above normal. Not surprisingly, sea ice extent was also shockingly low in the region. “There is incredibly little sea ice and it is probably a record low for the north coast this time of the year”, says NPI researcher Magnus Andersen. “We have however had several years with very little ice in the north, but this year might be the worst so far.”
How are these bears coping with a rapidly warming Arctic?
This 24-year old female currently has no cubs. She has been waiting on the island of Storoya, which would normally be surrounded by thick ice at this time of year. Instead, there’s thin ice and open water. Like N26241, she might be a “pelagic” bear stuck on land – pelagic bears spend much of their lives out on the sea ice, but females come to land in order to den and give birth.
“The sea ice in our region is so dynamic that a den will not be safe on the sea ice”, says Magnus. “Bears have to find suitable denning habitat on land, and if they do not reach land we think they skip reproducing. In a way they are adapted to this uncertainty, by investing very little in their fetuses prior to birth, the cubs are born tiny. We also think that some of the bears that normally would den in Svalbard now will go on land in Franz Josef Land [in Russia], and den there instead. The problem of finding good denning habitat will have negative consequences for the population as a whole, for sure.”
N26241 is an eight-year-old female who may have already lost the cubs she had last year. She is currently on the northern coast of Svalbard, which has been stunningly ice-free for most of the winter. The ice has finally reached the coast, so it will be interesting to see where she goes in the coming weeks.
Not all Svalbard bears are pelagic. Some, like N26018, spend their lives mainly on land in Svalbard’s fjords.Most polar bears successfully raise one or two cubs at a time. This bear has three! She and her cubs are hunting along the fjords of Spitsbergen, where seals may be resting on floating ice from glaciers.
Bears on other parts of Svalbard are facing much more difficulty in raising cubs. The island of Kongsøya further to the south, a previously important denning location for Svalbard bears, was ice-free for much of the winter.
“We expect there to be very few dens on Kongsøya this year for sure”, says Magnus. “Some females might have stayed on land there since there was last ice [spring], but these have not had the best conditions for preparing for giving birth and staying several months in a den. We hope to check the island for dens this spring, but do not expect to find many. A key question for us now is: where do the females that normally would den on [Kongsøya] go to den now? We hope that they find alternative places, but cannot be sure that they do not simply skip reproducing.”
The Arctic’s sea ice generally reaches its maximum extent in mid to late March. Today that extent is at a record low – and it has been for most of the winter. NPI’s researchers will head out this spring to assess the effect of the Arctic’s warm winter on the bears, and their cubs. For regular updates, keep following the bears on our map, or see all the species we track.