A Beaufort Sea Ice Extravaganza

4/19/2011 6:25:27 AM

A Beaufort Sea Ice Extravaganza

Having worked in the Beaufort Sea off and on for over 25 years—and continuously for the last nine years—I'm pretty used to variable ice conditions. Three years ago, I arrived with my crew of graduate students at the tail end of winter to find early summer conditions: almost no ice, and most of the bears thumbing their noses at us across a huge expanse of cold, dark arctic water that we couldn't cross.

Dr. Andrew Derocher

The trend in the Beaufort Sea to lower ice cover is well known, so it was a surprise that this year presented an abundance of ice packed in tight to shore. Lots of ice makes it easier for us to access the bears: our goal is to deploy satellite collars on adult females to monitor their movements and habitat use relative to climate change.

Expanse of sea ice near shore

We arrived in Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories yesterday, just in time for a wicked storm that would shut the town and the airport down. Fair enough - we unpacked our gear and got well prepared. Anyone working in the Arctic needs a good dose of patience. The sun would shine eventually and once conditions improved, we would start working.

While it might seem wimpy to only fly on sunny days with low winds, it's really an issue of efficiency: it's impossible to see polar bear tracks without sun and high winds obliterate any tracks that the bears make. Helicopter-based research is incredibly expensive, so maximizing efficiency is crucial and burning helicopter hours without a good return is a sure route to failure.

So, for now, we're hunkered down, waiting for the storm to lift.

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