Our team in the field in Svalbard

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

In the Field in Svalbard

By Kt Miller, Director of Field Programs and Relations



07 Mar 2023

We just returned from our first day in the field in Svalbard, Norway, for our two den studies with partners: one to monitor the behavior of moms and cubs when they emerge from the den in spring, and the other to test whether radar can detect denning families under the snow. 

We start fieldwork in the mornings early. I’m generally up at 05:30 prepping hot water for thermoses, eating breakfast, checking the weather, and double checking all my personal gear. From there we head down to the Norwegian Polar Institute to gather our technical equipment and run through a four-page checklist to ensure we have every camera, memory card, screw, drill bit, avalanche rescue equipment, food, hot water, and more for our day out.

Loading the helicopter for our maternal den study

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

The team loads the helicopter at Norwegian Polar Institute.

We then wait at the ready for a call from the helicopter pilot with a report on the weather and where we might be able to go. Svalbard is vast and remote and often the weather on one side of the archipelago is completely different from the other, so we rely on the pilots and the expertise of the local weather forecaster to inform our decisions and help us stay safe. 

Today’s weather was a bit mixed, with clouds and snow in some areas, sunshine in others, and possible high winds, so we were not sure what to expect, but we were able to get out to one of the den sites. We suited up in the hangar, running through yet another checklist, before loading for our first deployment. 

The NORCE drone pilots in the field

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

The NORCE team, one of our partners in the den-detection project, in the field.

We landed in a beautiful valley to gray skies and a light breeze—just enough to give the air a decent  chill. First, we popped up a tent for the NORCE research team, one of our partners on the project, to use as a base. It was pretty cool to see their setup, including a custom-built drone and radar, operated by two laptops in a tent. Once their system was set up we split into two teams. For the first deployment I stayed with the NORCE crew to serve as a bear guard and safety monitor while they conducted drone transects over the den site with their radar equipment. The other team included my colleagues, BJ Kirschhoffer and Joanna Sulich, who packed two sleds full of den-monitoring equipment, put on skis, and traveled a bit closer to the den site to deploy the cameras. 

Due to avalanche terrain, BJ and Joanna stopped over a kilometer from the den site to remain in a safe spot as they set up the camera equipment to monitor the den. Thanks to help from our partners at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, BJ was able to install a new sensor and lens in the mini den camera that increased our camera quality to 12 megapixels. Although distance hasn’t been a huge problem in the past, our increased zoom capabilities and higher resolution made even the one-kilometer distance unproblematic. I was able to watch them from a distance and we communicated back and forth over two-way radios.

The drone team for our den detection project

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

The NORCE team then launched the drone, beginning their first survey. It was fascinating to see them in action, planning their drone “mission” before each flight, aiming the radar at the same angle as the slope below, and cautiously navigating the mountainous terrain. The NORCE team flew three different “missions” with transects on our first day out, which was a huge success, and they successfully collected radar data on all three missions. We won’t know for a while yet whether the radar could detect the denning family beneath the snow, but we are thrilled that the drone handled the terrain and conditions well and that we now have radar data.

After five hours on the ground we packed up all the equipment, got picked up by the helicopter, and returned to town. I was excited and relieved to have the first field day under our belt, and to have it go so smoothly with such great conditions for the radar flights. Fieldwork doesn’t always go so smoothly, so I’m always grateful when everything comes together. 

BJ Kirschhoffer with a Maternal Den Cam Svalbard 2023

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

BJ Kirschhoffer sets up a den cam.

With another good weather day potentially on the horizon, we returned to the Norwegian Polar Institute to repack for another deployment, and tucked into bed early in case we could get out for back-to-back days.

We hope to get two or three more camera systems into the field and conduct more drone surveys as weather and conditions allow. As we know from experience, sometimes we are lucky just to get one camera out, so we will remain prepared and diligent, taking opportunities to safely conduct our research as time and conditions allow. Our research will naturally conclude as the window to travel to den sites before the mothers and cubs emerge comes to an end in a week or two. We will be hard at work in the meantime. Stay tuned for more updates on our social channels and for a fieldwork recap at the end of next week.  

Special thanks to the Norwegian Polar Institute and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance for partnering with us on the Maternal Den Study; to the Norwegian Polar Institute and NORCE for collaborating on the Den-Detection Study; and to our generous supporters for making this work possible.