2/11/2014 2:34:03 PM

New Tool for Finding Dens

By BJ Kirschhoffer

I spent the past week in prime polar bear habitat ... or close to it anyway. I was in northern Alaska in a town called Deadhorse with Wes Larson from Brigham Young University and a few others, testing new technology that may help us find denning polar bears more easily and less invasively.

Not too far from Deadhorse is prime denning habitat for polar bears. The landscape is very flat and the weather very cold. Almost any change in topography causes snow to collect and drift on the leeward side. For pregnant female polar bears these snowdrifts are perfect for digging dens. The snowy caverns that the females dig are almost an extension of the womb. Newborn polar bear cubs weigh in the neighborhood of one pound and have very little fur. They are too small and fragile to survive in the harsh climate of the Arctic. So the female polar bear and her cubs stay inside their sealed chamber until the cubs are big enough to survive temperatures that can reach -40°F/C (they are the same at that point) or lower.

Finding polar bear dens is important for two reasons. First, industrial activity on the North Slope is booming and the parties involved want to be sure they stay away from the dens. Second, we like to know where the dens are so we can study them. The current methods used to detect polar bear dens have their limitations. The best tools we have are FLIR (forward-looking infrared) devices and den-sniffing dogs. Both require fair weather, highly trained professionals, and, in one case, dogs trained to smell polar bears. So we started thinking and talking to people in the remote sensing field to see what better tools might exist.

Our new tool can be mounted on an aircraft. It has the ability in some cases to "see" through snow. We hope it will also us to capture an image of the female polar bear nestled below. If this proves to work, the mother bear and her cubs will not even know we have been in the area as we fly safely above their heads thousands of feet in the air.

But for now we must wait. This past week we successfully took images of the snow below, including two drifts with known den sites. Now we'll take that data back to the Lower 48 to have it analyzed to see if the engineers are able to spot the mother polar bears. If the tool works it could provide researchers, regulators, and industry with yet another way to detect and avoid or study polar bears and their dens. We will keep you posted on what we find. 

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