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Northeast Passage: Where are the polar bears?

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Neil Hamilton

Last night we celebrated our successful passage past Cape Chelyuskin and the Taimyr peninsula with a wonderful dinner of reindeer, from the leg that we bought from the Nenets herders on Weygach Island.  It has been hanging outside for the past few days aging perfectly and simply melted in the mouth. Culinary bliss on an expedition is a rare thing, but it does happen!

Now that we are cruising happily in the ice-free (apart from the beautiful but lone glacier iceberg from Servernaya Zemlya we passed 6 hours ago) Laptev Sea, it’s worth reflecting on what we didn’t see during our transit through the ice: polar bears.  The most we saw were some old tracks on an ice floe.

There are definitely polar bears here: it is prime habitat, and we saw many seals on the way through the ice, resting on the ice or swimming in the water: ringed, bearded, and harp (or Greenland) seals.  The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, the ‘peak body’ for assessing population trends and threats to the species, believes there are 500 to 1000 bears in the Laptev Sea region, and an unknown number in the Kara Sea.

I can only surmise that the bear population has already retreated northwards as the ice broke up weeks ago, so would be more visible around the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago.  Any remaining bears would most likely be found slightly nearer to the coast than we sailed, in the broken but more dense ice that provides a better hunting ground.

Very little is known about both the Kara and Laptev region polar bear sub-populations. This reflects the intense remoteness of the area. It is unclear whether the numbers of bears is growing or shrinking, and the population estimates are not adequate for management purposes. This is a critical problem as the impacts of climate change on polar bears are expected to be severe, particularly in this region where the warming is intense (last autumn was 5 degrees above average here) and the ice is being lost so rapidly.

So we hope that as we move south eastwards along the Taimyr coast, across the Lena Delta, and into the Chukchi Sea we will have better opportunities to observe bears.  Novaya Zemlya and perhaps most importantly Wrangel Island are in front of us.  We also hope to see the elusive Laptev Sea walrus!

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