Snow-covered slopes loom above a fjord and glacier in Spitsbergen in June. Photo copyright BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International.

© BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International

7/2/2018 1:48:12 PM

Countdown to Arctic Sea Ice Day

By BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations 

Sea ice. It’s an essential habitat for polar bears and many other Arctic animals—a frozen platform that allows an entire ecosystem to function.

Sea ice can take the form of large expanses of perfectly flat ice with snow on top or small pieces that float like ice chips in a glass of water. Sea ice can be pushed together, creating ridges across the landscape, or pulled apart, leaving open water.

Pancake ice, not suitable for polar bears to hunt or travel on.

Sea ice can take many different forms. This is pancake ice, not suitable for polar bears to hunt or travel on. Photo copyright BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International.

Since 1979, scientists have mapped the sea ice extent with satellites, producing charts showing its reach and coverage. Regions with sea ice are typically far away, in remote places on this planet. A lucky few have spent time in these places and a few more have visited the islands or land masses nearby. But for the vast majority of people, these locations remain images on a map or in a photo. 

For 12 days this summer, I lived the ice maps, the remoteness replaced with a view outside my cabin window. I found it fascinating to see a glimpse of how the reality of sea ice compared to the blobs of color depicting the ratio of water versus ice on a map.

I had the great opportunity to join a Quark Expedition ship as we circumnavigated the Svalbard archipelago. I was asked to come along as a representative of Polar Bears International to talk about polar bears and the importance of sea ice to these magnificent creatures.

The experience was great, the company on the ship greater, and the wildlife sightings absolutely amazing. We saw it all from the polar bear (my favorite) to the bowhead whale, ivory gull, walrus, ringed and bearded seal, reindeer, arctic fox, puffin, king eider, common eider, guillemot, auk, and geese.

A polar bear navigates melting sea ice.

A polar bear navigates melting sea ice between 81° and 82°N. Polar bears rely on ice as a hunting platform from which to reach their main prey, ringed and bearded seals. Photo copyright BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International.

My pleasure was balanced with the realization that it was early June and a boat should not be able to travel in and around Spitsbergen and the accompanying islands without encountering trouble with ice. Historically, straits and fjords should be choked with ice or totally frozen and travel should be impossible. But not of late and not this year. Instead we had nearly total freedom to roam as we sailed to 82°40’ N to find the ice edge and polar bears, only to return to the sight of land and sail through the Hinlopen Strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet.

Now after my return to dry land I have access to the Internet and can see that that the Svalbard Ice area is currently sitting well below the 1981 to 2010 average for sea ice extent and well below the minimum sea ice ever recorded for 1981-2010, at just below 200,000 square kilometers.

Nearly all the wildlife witnessed during our trip requires sea ice to survive. I’m not just talking about the polar bear and its favorite food, ringed and bearded seals. I’m talking about the entire system. Everything from the algae under the ice to the high-fat copepod and zooplankton to the small fish and whales, seals, birds, and polar bears.

Walrus rest on a small patch of sea ice.Walrus rest on a remnant patch of sea ice. Photo copyright BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International.

As we approach Arctic Sea Ice Day on July 15th, we ask you to join with us in sharing facts about this amazing habitat with others—and to get involved in our efforts to save it, for polar bears and for all of us.

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