Polar Bears International

With one team in Svalbardand the other in Deadhorse, Alaska, PBI staff were literally on opposite sides of the North Pole.

© Daniel J. Cox/naturalexposures.com

3/30/2017 2:27:49 PM

Two Research Teams Separated by the Arctic Ocean

By BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations

Over the past two weeks Polar Bears International conducted fieldwork in two locations on opposite sides of the North Pole, setting up camera traps to record the behavior of polar bear families after they emerge from their dens.

I was in Longyearbyen, Norway with partners including the Norwegian Polar Institute (Rupert Krapp) and San Diego Zoo Global (Dr. Megan Owen and Dr. Nicholas Pilfold). At the same time, Geoff York, our senior director of conservation, was in Deadhorse, Alaska, working with Dr. Tom Smith of Brigham Young University.

If one were to travel from the Alaska field site over the pole to our Svalbard location, the distance would be similar to a flight from New York to Los Angeles. Not a bad journey, but no direct flights from Svalbard to Deadhorse exist, so I was, in fact, several days travel from Geoff, who was just on the other side of Arctic Ocean.

Being on opposite sides of the North Pole was not our only difference. In Alaska, Geoff traveled by snow machine across a nearly flat landscape covered by hard, Styrofoam-like snow, working in frigid temperatures that dipped to -40° (C and F). In Norway, I skied past massive mountains looming above the coast, working in comparatively balmy temperatures that hovered between freezing and 0°F (-18°C). In Alaska, Geoff looked out to an ocean frozen to the shallow seabed below. In Norway, I saw fjords with nearly no sea ice at all.

Aerial view approaching Tromso, Norway.The rugged mountains provide a sharp contrast to the flat, open terrain along Alaska's North Slope.
Photo copyright Daniel J. Cox/naturalexposures.com.

Although polar bears have evolved to live in the cold, frozen, and sometimes wet climate of the Arctic, electronics have not. A primary challenge of our work is to make electronics function where polar bears thrive. Whether it is broadcasting via the Internet across long distances for our educational programs or working with researchers to gather data on denning polar bears with cameras, we use a variety of technology in the field. We choose gear for its durability or rehouse it inside something that can withstand the demanding environment. 

Solar panels power the camera systems in both Alaska (shown here) and Svalbard.
Photo copyright Geoff York/Polar Bears International.

In Svalbard, the terrain is much more complex. Polar bear females choose den sites on mountains or hillsides that slope toward steep ravines or deep fjords. Over the past two years, our team has been able to place the cameras about 300 meters in front of the den entrances, although we could be as much as 100-700 feet below the actual opening. We tilt the camera upslope to ensure we capture the first images of the family group as they emerge. 

Both Alaska and Norway project goals are the same: to monitor and record physical and behavioral data at the den sites to create a historical record of denning behavior that can be monitored and evaluated over time. The information we gather includes:

  • The number of cubs at the time of emergence
  • The size and condition of family members
  • The timing of den emergence
  • How long the family remains at the den site before departing

Over the past two weeks between Alaska and Norway, we were able to place a total of four cameras near locations we believe to be polar bear dens. Once the bears have vacated their winter dens, we will retrieve our gear, which will contain hours of footage from each site. It’s always exciting to view the footage to see what we’ve recorded.

In most cases, we’re able to pair the information from the den cams with collar data, tracking the activity and movement of polar bears throughout the entire year when bears are on the ice far away from our cameras. Taken together, this information gives us a better idea of how polar bears are faring in a warming Arctic.

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