Where there’s ice, there are bears

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.

Edgeøya is a large island in eastern Svalbard, here in sunset, just a few days before we have 24hr daylight in the area. Photo: Jon Aars / NPI

April 15, 2016 – Today we surveyed Edgeøya, the largest of the islands in the east of the archipelago. We followed the coast down on the west side, and found neither sea ice nor bears.

We finally encountered a local shallow area (a laguna) that had sea ice, and certainly the bears had found the same place. Within a few hours we captured an adult male, a female with two cubs of the year, a female with a yearling and a lone adult female in the rather restricted area.

A sedated mother and her one year old cub, southern Edgeøya. Photo: Jon Aars / NPI

The lone female was the TV star from a BBC series called “The Polar Bear Family and Me” from a few years ago. She was filmed with two cubs through the year in 2012.

Since then we have not seen her nor any of the cubs. As she had a small logger measuring temperature and light in one ear, we got data that showed she had been denning the winter 2013-2014. This means she did not wean any cub successfully (they should have been with her until 2014, and she should not have been in den before 2014-2015 if any of the cubs survived.

The series showed that she lost one cub the first summer, the data show she likely lost the other one some time after.  This is fairly normal, perhaps one out of three cubs survive until weaning in Svalbard. It is hard for a mother to raise cubs. In addition to the bears we spotted many ptarmigans and some walruses.