Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

The town of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway—Polar Bears International's base for Norwegian field work.

Arriving in Longyearbyen

By Kt Miller, Director of Field Programs and Relations



01 Mar 2023

I just arrived in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the Svalbard archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic. It’s always inspiring to be re-immersed in the landscape here—the vast snow-covered peaks, glaciers, and sea ice-filled fjords. Our regional scientist, Joanna Sulich, and I will begin prepping equipment and gear today with our partners at the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Once again this year, we will be conducting two research projects simultaneously—the second year of expanding our research in Svalbard during the denning period. The timing of this project is precise: We need enough daylight to conduct our research but also must complete our travel to den sites before the mother polar bears emerge from their dens with their cubs. This window lasts only a few weeks at most, so time is always of the essence. It’s been quite snowy in Longyearbyen lately, so we’re hoping for some weather windows that will allow us to safely conduct our research.

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

The town of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway—Polar Bears International's base for Norwegian field work.

Our first project, our Maternal Den Study, has been ongoing for many years. It started in Alaska almost 15 years ago, and has continued in Svalbard for the past 7 years. This study involves placing remote camera systems at den sites to record data on emerging families, allowing us to learn more about mother polar bears and cubs at this critical time. This year we did not do a big equipment rebuild, but instead honed and improved upon the lenses for our mini den cameras, technology co-designed and built by Polar Bears International and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. We also developed a new attachment system for the solar panels that power the cameras. We’ll be rigging these over the weekend before we head into the field.

The second research project this season is to continue to test radar to detect polar bear dens hidden under the snow. This research builds upon decades of work by our team to develop tools to locate, and hence identify, areas to protect from industry and other disturbances. Previously, we conducted tests with a specific frequency of radar called synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which continues to show promise. However, this year we learned of the capabilities of an ultra-wide band (UWB) radar that may be able to detect objects hidden beneath the snow. It was developed in the snow science and avalanche disciplines but may be a useful tool to locate polar bear dens as well. Attached to a drone that flies at an altitude that won’t disturb the bears, this radar can “look” through the snow while flying transect surveys. We will be working with two operators from NORCE to test this UWB radar this year—an exciting first for Polar Bears International.

Photo: Kt Miller

The team prepares to test radar technology to detect polar bear maternity dens.

It’s always interesting to explain this time of year and fieldwork to friends back home. Most polar bears at this time of year, aside from mothers with young cubs, are out roaming across the Arctic sea ice, hunting seals, and traveling many kilometers. I often explain that you can’t really put enough fuel in a helicopter to go find them and follow them over the frozen ocean. In contrast, the denning females we're studying are tucked into a snow cave at this time of year after giving birth to a cub (or cubs) around Christmas or New Year’s. They’re sealed away from the world in a safe little home beneath the snow, waiting for the cubs to be big enough to survive outside. So our goal when we are doing this fieldwork, despite the fact that we are studying bears, is not to see them. Ideally, we place a solar-powered camera near the den site, hit the record button, and head home, returning after the families have left the den to retrieve the camera and analyze the footage.

We will keep you updated as our fieldwork progresses. As always, we are so grateful for all of our partners, sponsors, and supporters that make this research possible. Here’s to another year of learning and innovation—with a sprinkle of Arctic inspiration along the way.