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Life on a treadmill

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By Geoff York

I stare out into a snowy and partially foggy morning as I work my way through breakfast and my morning coffee. Patchy squalls moving across the tundra and out on the ice – could go either direction today. The change in weather is expected, but we hoped for a couple of more blue sky weather days. The visibility is still fair, and the fixed wing will have no trouble flying, so we’ll push on out and see what we can accomplish today.

The weather improves as fly out to the northwest yet again. The sea ice is also becoming more fragmented by the day and the primary lead along the shore fast ice has continued to widen towards the north. We head back to the area where we last saw a bear on Tuesday, though of course the area is not really the same. As Heraclitus famously said: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Sea ice in the Chukchi is much like a river, always on the move, always changing. Life for polar bears is life on a treadmill.

After a bit of poking around, we have no luck in finding our long-gone male, but we do happen upon some fresh family tracks. By midday, we are safely on the ground with a healthy sow and her two yearlings in a pan large enough for our plane to land. This is a perfect setting as we’ll have extra hands for the bears and the pilots will be able to refuel the helicopter.

Blue skies return as we work through the marking and sampling for each new bear. Even with an extra hand, we’ll be on the ice for almost three hours. The yearlings are both large and healthy. Chukchi yearlings this season have been up to 50kg heavier than their Beaufort Sea cousins – pretty remarkable! I have also seen more seals, and particularly bearded seals than I am used to seeing in the Beaufort Sea – a testament to the high productivity of this region and a good reminder of the differences between regions in the Arctic. To the layman it all appears a homogenous landscape of ice and snow, yet each area is unique and productivity varies greatly.

Within an hour of leaving our first capture, we are once again following good tracks. We quickly make up for our mandatory day off yesterday and capture a second family group with two yearlings – a six bear day with plenty of daylight and fuel ahead! We have now captured 24 yearlings this season – a remarkably high percentage given that only four where handled in the past two seasons. Despite the recent downward trends in sea ice, and the dismal forecast for the future of polar bears in this area, they have clearly had an exceptional past year and that is very welcome news.

As we move forward into a rapidly changing Arctic, there will be good and bad years for polar bears and that will vary across locations, but the long term forecast remains grim. The same is true for sea ice loss and warming itself- there will be cold years and warm years, but the overall warming trend is expected to continue. One cold year does not change a long term trend and one good year for bears will not by itself save them as their habitat continues to degrade and their very ecosystem shifts around them. There will be “noise” in these complex systems – few things are as simple as we would like to believe. Still, I am happy to see bears in this region having such a great year, and this speaks volume about their resilience, if we can only give them a chance by reigning in our contributions to their warming world and balancing additional stressors.

We leave our second family group around 7PM and continue searching now to the southwest. Around half past eight, we begin tracking a single bear – a perfect cap for our day if we can find it. This bear is really interesting and a challenge to track as we discover it is in the mood for swimming. We continually lose and pick up the track as the bear swims down the middle of narrow leads it could easily walk around.

The path less travelled - taking the water wayThe path less travelled - taking the water way

After about an hour of this “hide-and-seek” tracking, we finally see the wily swimmer, but we have simply run out of time. It’s now half past 9 in the evening and we are still about 120km from base.

Despite the nice weather and ample evening light, we decide not to push it and head back.

WWF International Arctic Programme polar bear specialist, Geoff York, is currently in the Chukchi Sea area with the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service, conducting research into the status of polar bear populations in the area, and is blogging for the WWF Climate blog while he is there.

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