A male polar bear tests the air for seals, one of 10 bears observed during a voyage last month to the North Pole.

© Kieran Mulvaney/Polar Bears International

9/26/2017 1:10:36 PM

Of Polar Bears and Sea Ice: North Pole

By Kieran Mulvaney

The first polar bear sighting came sometime before 6 a.m., a few days after we had left port. The next came an hour or so later, when the initial male was joined by a second, picking his way among the ice floes, sniffing the air and investigating the unfamiliar aromas that were gently wafting their way toward him. If either bear was in any way concerned by the presence of the nuclear-powered icebreaker, neither registered any visible displeasure.

The first bear, rotund and healthy, spent most of his time doing what polar bears often do: laying down at the edge of a floe, conserving his energy, and perhaps hoping that a seal might pop out of the open water.

The second headed closer, but then, as if belatedly becoming aware of the presence of the first, displayed caution and kept his distance. We watched them for a while until those on board had had their fill, and then the ship ghosted slowly and silently away.

We were on the Russian-flagged nuclear icebreaker, 50 Let Pobedy, which translates as 50 Years of Victory. At 75,000 horsepower, it is—at least until the next generation of three new icebreakers comes on line—the most powerful icebreaker in the world. Its primary task is to lead convoys of tankers and cargo ships through the ice-clogged Northeast Passage from the Barents Sea across the top of Russia and out into the Bering Strait—a pathway the Russians generally refer to, somewhat optimistically, as the Northern Sea Route.

For a couple of months at the height of summer, the icebreaker is chartered by adventure travel companies to take passengers through the Arctic Ocean sea ice to the North Pole. This year, three of those voyages were organized by Quark Expeditions, and for the final voyage of the summer, Quark invited Polar Bears International’s Executive Director Krista Wright and Senior Director of Conservation Geoff York to accompany them as invited experts, to give presentations and answer questions about polar bears and PBI. I was able to join them to document the trip.

Polar bear sightings

In total during the 11-day voyage to and from the Russian port city of Murmansk, we saw 10 bears, including a mother and cub of the year, striding confidently in his mother’s wake.

We came across most of them in their favored domain, wandering across expanses of fractured sea ice, hoping to find seals—and indeed, while we watched the mom and cub, the mother at one point darted for an open lead in the ice, presumably attracted by the sight, smell, or sound of potential prey. One of the bears we encountered was in repose on a thick jumble of shore-fast sea ice on one of the islands of Franz Josef Land, an Arctic archipelago that is the most northerly land in Eurasia. Another, also in Franz Josef Land, was resting on a bluff just below a cliff face of kittiwakes, having perhaps gorged on the unsuspecting birds and their chicks.

We saw walruses, too, as well as bowhead whales and numerous species of seabirds.

Two male polar bears wander on the sea ice fairly close to each other.

Two male polar bears wander on the sea ice fairly close to each other. Photo copyright Kieran Mulvaney/Polar Bears International.

Thin ice and open water

But we didn’t see as much sea ice as we should have. Which is not to say there wasn’t any. There was: there were times when almost all we could see was ice, stretching out to the horizon. On those occasions, the ship rattled and lurched as it blasted its way through the expanse of floes. But they were much fewer and far between than should have been the case.

Patches of open water were commonplace—even at the North Pole itself. There were frequent spells, including at high latitudes, when there was more water than ice.

Not only that, much of that ice appeared worryingly thin.

“Admittedly, at the height of the Arctic summer, you’d expect to encounter less sea ice than in, say, March,” notes Krista. “But it was striking how sparse it was for much of the time—and how thin. Most of the time, except for when we were in close to the coast and bays of Franz Josef Land, where currents push the ice into small channels and against the shore where it can build up, it appeared we were passing almost entirely through first-year ice, if there was any ice at all.”

Thin sea ice with patches of open water.

Ice conditions varied during the trip, with thin, first-year ice and patches of open water disturbingly common. Photo copyright Kieran Mulvaney/Polar Bears International.

First year ice is ice that has formed only the previous winter and which has therefore not had the opportunity to thicken and grow over the course of several years. Why does that matter? Because first-year ice is thinner than multiyear ice, which means it is more vulnerable to melting again and to fracturing into open leads or pressure ridges. It’s a vicious cycle: a warming climate causes old sea ice to shrink and thin during the summer, to be replaced by thinner sea ice that is more vulnerable to further melting, and so on. That is why, although there is concern over the dwindling extent of sea ice in the Arctic–and this summer’s minimum was the eighth-lowest on record (which is almost a pleasant surprise as ice was tremendously slow to form over the winter)there is at least as much concern over declining sea ice volume.

Satellite data supports our anecdotal observations. According to the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, through August, sea ice volume was only slightly higher than the lowest ever recorded, which was in 2012. August volume was 70 percent below the maximum for the month, in 1979, and 56 percent below the 1979-2016 mean.

“It’s one thing to read such details in the scientific literature or to look at coverage of satellite maps or graphs showing decreasing sea ice volume,” says Geoff. “But it’s another thing entirely to see the situation for yourself, to be at 86, 87 degrees North and heading farther north and wondering when we’re going to start seeing real, thick ice, with gnarled pressure ridges of the sort that explorers so often have complained about having to traverse.”

A changing ecosystem

The ship’s log stands as testament to just how thin the ice was on our journey. 50 Years of Victory is designed to keep going even when the ice is nine feet thick, which is impressive. But at that kind of thickness, the ship slows to a crawl, grinding its way through at just two knots. On the two days before achieving the Pole, in contrast, we averaged 16.8 and 13.5 knots respectively. Admittedly, it’s the most powerful icebreaker in the world, but still: Victory’s cruising speed in open water, 19 knots, is not much faster than its average pace through supposedly extensive sea ice.

“This was the first time Quark invited us on one of their Arctic voyages, and it was a really positive experience,” says Krista. “I hope that we were able to help at least some of the passengers understand more about polar bears and the Arctic, and of course it’s always a treat to see bears in their natural environment. But I think what will stick with us all the longest is seeing for ourselves the state of the sea ice. I hope we’ll be able to do more voyages in future, and partner with both Quark and the staff at the Russian Arctic National Park on meaningful conservation projects in the region.”

In 1895, the Norwegian Fridjof Nansen abandoned his attempt to reach the North Pole when he was confronted by “great ridges of piled-up ice of dismal aspect,” and “ugly pressure ridges of the worst kind, formed by the packing of enormous blocks.” The great explorer might perhaps have preferred the conditions we encountered on our way to the Pole—although so much open water would have presented its own challenges. But what makes life easier for amateur adventurers like those of us on the Victory isn’t good for polar bears, the Arctic Ocean ecosystemor the rest of the world.

Author Kieran Mulvaney, left, with Geoff York and Krista Wright of PBI at 90° North. Photo copyright Kieran Mulvaney/Polar Bears International.

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