To reach polar bear dens, the team travels via snow mobile.

© BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International

1/23/2014 2:36:39 PM

Behind the Scenes of Alaska's North Slope

As the wind howls across the frozen plain of the North Slope, BJ Kirshhoffer is preparing for his trip to Alaska to look for maternal polar bear dens. Polar Bears International's director of field operations is ready to brave the cold to locate (but not disturb) polar bear moms and cubs that are snuggled in their dens beneath the snow and ice.

We caught up with BJ before his trip north to find out what it's really like up there.

Q: What's the purpose of locating maternal dens?

A: We've been studying polar bears and their maternal denning behavior for ten years. This kind of long-term study helps us better understand a long-lived animal like the polar bear. Our PBI team, led by Dr. Tom Smith of Brigham Young University, who serves on our Scientific Advisory Council, spends weeks in the bitter cold of Alaska's North Slope every year trying to find out:

  • When do polar bears typically emerge from their dens with cubs?
  • How long do families hang around at the den site before heading to the sea ice to hunt seals?
  • How sensitive to disturbances are denning polar bears?

When we understand normal behavior, we can identify what abnormal behavior is. It helps us know how climate change and industry are affecting bears.

Q: Is it dangerous working on the North Slope?

A: Safety is really important to us. We check in with a lot of people so that multiple folks know where we are if something goes wrong. There is a lot of preplanning involved—from choosing the right clothes, to checking the weather forecast, to making sure our equipment works in very cold conditions, to deciding how to get there.

Q: Is it really that cold?

A: It is easily -40F or colder without the wind chill. It's often windy up there and when you are riding on a snowmobile, it's always windy.

Q: So, how do you dress for those kinds of conditions?

A: On the bottom half, I wear two layers of long johns, insulated pants, and down pants on top of all that. I wear one to two pairs of the heaviest wool socks I can find, and the biggest boots money can buy. On top, it's another two to three layers of long johns, a fleece shirt, and the biggest parka Canada Goose makes. Then two layers on my hands so I can take one pair off to work, and I top it all off with a balaclava and hat.

Q: How do you know where to start looking for dens?

A: George Durner from the U.S. Geological Survey has mapped the suitable denning habitat, so we combine that with our personal experience from past trips. This year we are trying out a new technology to find dens that will be even less invasive than the low-invasive techniques we use now.

Q: What's the North Slope of Alaska like?

A: Well, it's not a slope. It sounds like it should be a beautiful hillside, but it's really a flood plain between the Brooks Range and Beaufort Sea. It's flat! There is a pingo (a mound of earth covered in ice) or two, but it's mostly flat, white, and icy. The flat light and whiteness make it hard to even tell where the land ends and the sea begins. You'd swear you could drive straight to the North Pole.

Of course, as soon as you get on a snowmobile you realized it may be flat, but it isn't smooth. It's icy and bumpy and the wind carves out spectacular (rock hard) snowdrifts. We call it "white cement" and it's exercise for all the discs in your back. With the wind, cold, and low visibility, you feel pretty tough just going up there.

In December and most of January, it's dark 24 hours a day. In March daylight gains about 10 minutes a day, so in less than a week, there is another hour of daylight. So, it's pretty dark when we are up there. You just have to work in the dark.

Q: It must be really isolated up there.

A: Not really. The largest domestic oil field in the U.S. is on the North Slope and employs about 3,000 people. There are about 80 miles of coastline covered in roads and buildings. It's pretty surreal. That's also why we are there—to see how all that industry, along with climate change, affects polar bears.

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