Polar bear walking among snow drifts

Photo: Valerie Beck / Polar Bears International

Polar Bear Research in a Pandemic

By Dr. Andrew E. Derocher



27 Oct 2020

Scientists have studied the Western Hudson Bay polar bears for 40 years. The impacts of this year's data gap due to the pandemic are still unknown.

If there’s a first lesson an Arctic researcher learns early in their career, it’s that the Arctic doesn’t suffer fools and mistakes can be deadly. Studying polar bears likely adds a bit more on the risk factor column but I’m usually more concerned about helicopters than polar bears. I can deal with the bears (I hope) but I can’t fly a helicopter.

If there’s a second lesson Arctic researchers learn, it’s probably that no study will quickly yield meaningful insights. The Arctic is an incredibly dynamic ecosystem so conditions in one year might be vastly different from conditions the next year—or the conditions can be totally different in days, hours, or minutes.

I’ve spent a lot of time waiting for weather, waiting for sea ice, waiting for bears to show up, and waiting for helicopter repairs. I once sat in a field camp south of Cape Churchill waiting for the fog to burn off. Every day the Churchill Airport told us the fog would burn off by noon. For three weeks we heard the same forecast until it eventually came to be. The take home message? Patience pays. Polar bear researchers have to play the long game. I’ve played a lot of cribbage in the field. 

Research gaps

There’s no way to do any meaningful research on polar bears quickly. Most studies require large samples sizes, multiple years of data, and extensive coverage of an area to obtain data robust enough to provide a signal above the noise. So, what does this mean for polar bear research in 2020 under a pandemic? It’s not good. Most polar bear researchers lost 2020 in their time series.

The long-term studies in Western Hudson Bay started in 1980. In 2020, the 40-year run was finally interrupted. Similarly, the long-term telemetry studies of bears in the population groaned to a halt this year.

Dr. Andrew Derocher working with a tranquilized bear in pre-pandemic times

Photo: Dr. Andrew Derocher

Dr. Andrew Derocher working with a tranquilized bear in pre-pandemic times.

It’s hard to know what the effects will be on research. A single gap year might not be that serious but then again, if something unusual happens, we may never know the reason why. Is there any reason to believe that 2020 was unusual? Unfortunately, yes. The bears we were tracking by satellite telemetry managed to stay out on the sea ice longer this summer. Normally, that means good things should happen: fatter bears, fewer human-bear conflicts, higher survival, and more cubs. It should mean that the bears heading out onto the ice next month (we hope they leave sooner rather than later) will be in better condition and that more cubs made it through the summer on-land period. We won’t know for sure if this is the case, but we can get some insights in 2021 when we should see a bump in yearling litters and subadults. Time will tell.

Polar bear researchers are a resilient lot. I know every one of them (there’s not that many) and not a single one got into the business for the short term. I’d say polar bear researchers are a bit like wine—a good one may age well but it takes time to find out. No matter what, every polar bear researcher is whining about 2020 and the loss of data. We’ll be OK but we won’t know if the bears were OK in 2020.

Regional variations

While Hudson Bay bears might have done fine, other parts of the Arctic had grim ice conditions. The Siberian coast of Russia was a global hotspot that shattered heat records. With that heat came a massive retreat of sea ice that still hasn’t returned. In that part of the world, there’s virtually no monitoring of polar bears so there’s no year to miss. Thus, in keeping with the wine metaphor, that’s a fully empty bottle and for most ongoing research programs, we’re just missing a few sips from our glass of polar bear data. With luck, we’ll get a refill next year.

North coast of Banks Island, Canada

Photo: Dr. Andrew Derocher

Photo taken in May, 2012 on the north coast of Banks Island, Canada at the eastern end of the Northwest Passage. Five minutes before, it was a perfectly clear sunny day but then the research team flew into a storm. They ended up waiting on the sea ice for a few hours until they could fly back to camp.

All polar bear researchers have at times been sidelined by weather, ice conditions, research funding, or a multitude of other factors. A pandemic, however, is a first for all of us. In the big picture, it’s human health that matters and the main reason why no polar bear researchers went in the field was due to the limited health resources available in northern communities and their isolation. The risk to northern people was too high and no data is worth taking a chance. In the end, the bears won’t miss us as much as we’ll miss them.

Dr. Andrew E. Derocher is professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He is a long-time scientific advisor to Polar Bears International.