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 23, 2016 – We have now left the boat and are using Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard, as a base. A few days ago, we surveyed the west coast of Spitsbergen, the main island of Svalbard, with limited success.
In two of the larger western fjords, Van Mijen and Van Keulen, we searched for two of the polar bears on WWF’s Tracker. Snovit (N23979) still has a working collar, so we know her position. The other one, N23980, has a collar that hasn’t sent positions since early March.
Today these females were our main target. About noon we found fresh tracks at a glacier front on sea ice close to Snovit’s location from the day before. The ice had broken up, so her last position was at open water, but what we assumed were her tracks were picked up a few hundred meters further into the fjord.
Soon we spotted her, and were able to immobilize her. She did not seem to have had cubs, something we were interested to know. She went into a den in January, later than what is normal for polar bears giving birth. She left the den in March, and we assumed that if she gave birth, the cubs would have been lost. It seems she was only in what we call a temporary den, not a maternity den. Snovit is starting to get rather old, and maybe she found she deserved a break.
Her daughter is N23980, and we knew from observations that she had been with her two 2-year old cubs until early April, but that the family had broken up since then. We observed one of her 2-year olds on very thin ice, not safe for helicopter landing.
A bit later we found N23980 on sea ice close to land, in an area we knew she was likely to spend time. We darted her on land, where it was safe, took off the old nonfunctional collar, and replaced it with a new one. As this bear has had a very specific migration route every year, involving the crossing on a fjord and a strait, it shall be interesting to follow her the next months.