Snow-covered mountains in Svalbard

Photo: Daniel J. Cox

On the Frontlines in Svalbard

By Daniel J. Cox, Natural Exposures



20 Mar 2017

I recently returned from Svalbard, Norway where I joined Polar Bears International, the Norwegian Polar Institute, and San Diego Zoo Global on a polar bear maternal den study.

As a photographer and filmmaker, my role was to help document and spread the word about the impacts of climate change on this remote region—part of my work with the Arctic Documentary Project, a long-term endeavor under PBI’s umbrella. The last couple of years have been remarkable for the lack of sea ice in Svalbard’s fjords and the surrounding ocean, making the study especially timely.

Svalbard is a world-renowned polar bear denning site. The mountains and deep valleys have historically harbored deep snow, which provides excellent protection for mother polar bears needing a place to give birth to their cubs. However, when moms emerge with their young cubs in spring, they depend on the ice-covered fjords that lie at the base of the magnificent snow-capped peaks. For polar bears, sea ice is life. Without ice, polar bears can’t reach seals. And no seals means no food for a large, hungry mammal that may have already been fasting for up to five months.

Alkhornet Mountain, gateway to Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Alkhornet Mountain, gateway to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

As our flight cleared the clouds, the mouth of Isfjorden, the second longest fjord on the island, came into view. Towering above the slate-colored, ice-free waters of the Greenland Sea stood Alkhornet Mountain, blanketed in snow, jagged, and inspiring. It was a fitting gateway to the remote Norwegian village of Longyearbyen with its 2100+ residents.

Like PBI’s Maternal Den Study in Alaska, now in its sixteenth year, the goal in Svalbard is to set up remote cameras to study the behavior of polar bear moms and cubs when they first leave their dens. The study will allow scientists to compare data from two very different locations. They’ll also be able to monitor the bears in both locations over time, documenting changes like when they leave their dens, what their body condition is like, and how they spend their time.

Our team consisted of Krista Wright and BJ Kirschhoffer of PBI as well as Dr. Megan Owen and Dr. Nicholas Pilfold from San Diego Zoo Global. The Norwegian Polar Institute graciously provided us with the infield leadership of biologist Rupert Krapp. It was an All-Star team of sorts and the second year BJ and Megan worked with Rupert for the benefit of polar bears and Arctic science.

The first days on the ground involved tracking down gear left behind at the NPI from the year before—including remote cameras, the cables to latch them down, and the steel spikes to anchor them to the ground. To get it all to the den site BJ and Megan built two sleds, known as qamutiiks. Hauling heavy gear across open snowfields was just one of many challenges we faced.

The team built sleds, or qamutiiks, to transport their gear to the den site

The team built sleds, or qamutiiks, to transport their gear to the den site.

Preparing for such an excursion requires skill, patience, and knowledge of local conditions. Svalbard isn't known for wet snow events or rain during mid-winter, but that’s all changing with a warmer climate.

Just last month, February, a serious avalanche that destroyed two multi-home dwellings and buried several people alive hit the village of Longyearbyen. Thankfully the residents were saved and suffered no serious injuries. However, the year before, 2016, several people did die in another avalanche that poured massive amounts of snow onto several homes.

For our journey to the study den site, we studied maps and weather data to prepare ourselves from the dangers of sliding snow. We spent one morning training for avalanche recovery, which included using an avalanche beacon, a snow shovel for digging a person out, and guidance for finding a partner lost in a slide. It was all serious business but necessary for placing remote cameras in this complex terrain.

Scientist Nicholas Pilfold wearing white to test maternal den cams

Scientist Nicholas Pilfold dons a white suit to test the camera's effectiveness in photographing white bears in a white landscape.

BJ, who is responsible for building PBI’s nearly science fiction remote camera systems that are used to study the dens, was there to put all the technology together, help get the gear to the site, and work with the Norwegian Polar Institute and San Diego Zoo Global as the leader of our group. Megan and Nicholas were there for advice on quality den locations, logistical challenges, and other critical scientific input. Krista and I were there for moral support, gathering communications materials, and building a quality relationship with our new partners. Krista also hitched herself to the sled. Me? I shot lots of pictures and video. That sled looked really heavy.

The Polar Bears International team sets up maternal den cams in Svalbard

The team sets up the remote camera system, which is powered by solar panels. The camera will record the behavior of the mother and her cubs after they emerge from their dens.

The day of camera deployment, from start to finish, was a full eight hours of work, including helicopter time to the location, unloading the gear, packing it for transport, hauling it there, and getting it all set up. After one good day on the ground and five days of prep, the camera is now on site and—we hope—collecting stills and video of a polar bear mother and her new little cubs. What might we learn from all this work? Only time will tell but suffice it to say, whatever we know will help guide decision-makers to ensure the survival of one of the world's most beloved creatures.