Team members ski to polar bear den locations, pulling sleds of equipment behind them.

Team members skied into den locations, transporting their equipment on sleds. Along the way, they passed by open fjords normally filled with ice. Photo copyright BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International.

3/14/2016 1:23:06 PM

Svalbard Denning: Where Is the Ice?

By BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations

I've traveled great distances from Polar Bears International's headquarters in North America to an island chain suspended between Arctic Russia and the northern reaches of Greenland—the legendary polar bear denning site of Svalbard, Norway. 

Here in this Arctic refuge, framed by snowy peaks and sheltered from the wind, two female polar bears with GPS collars and cubs roughly eight weeks old are tucked safely in their snow dens. The families will remain in their dens until the cubs are strong enough to follow their moms onto the sea ice to hunt.

Minus the collars, this is the same process that has taken place for hundreds of thousands of years-beginning when the polar bear's ancestors decided that sea ice could be a suitable place to make a living.

Every year, female polar bears across the circumpolar Arctic burrow into snowy holes or peat dens to wait, give birth, and raise cubs until they're big enough to leave the den.

What has changed in recent history is the sea ice. Human-caused climate change has melted massive amounts of sea ice or prevented it from forming in the places where such ice historically occurred. This sea ice is the very platform polar bears need to hunt seals, travel, and find mates. Mother bears rely on this fat-rich food source after months of fasting in their maternity dens. 

The moms and cubs now waiting in Svalbard have no idea that the sea ice they depend on isn't there this year. Temperatures have been unusually warm in the Arctic this winter, and the fjords and coast usually full of ice are now open water across much of Svalbard.

Historically, the entire island chain is nearly surrounded by sea ice that reaches down from the North Pole to just below the islands. But this year on the west side, it's all open water to well north of the islands. In fact, the Svalbard region has the lowest sea ice extent since record keeping began in 1967. If a female polar bear wants to find ice, she and her cubs will need to make tough decisions about where to go.

Over the next few days Dr. Megan Owen of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and I will be working with Jon Aars, Magnus Andersen, and Rupert Krapp of the Norwegian Polar Institute to deploy video cameras to record female polar bear behavior in the vicinity of den sites here in Svalbard. Our goal is to better understand their denning ecology and how they are faring in a changing Arctic.

Unlike our studies in Alaska, where we focus on the potential impacts of industry, in Svalbard, we'll also look at the possible effects of human activities from recreation and tourism.

The lack of sea ice and warm temperatures in the region this year are sobering and an indication of how fast conditions are changing in the Arctic. The rapid pace points to the need for swift action that will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions-improving conditions for polar bear moms, cubs, and all of us.

Special thanks to the sponsors of the Svalbard Den Project: Ouwehand Zoo and Yorkshire Wildlife Park.

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