6/11/2014 9:05:30 PM

When to Go?

By Dr. Andrew Derocher

The adventure continues for our polar bear scientist as he weighs whether he can wait out the weather ....

I'm only helping out on this project and I don't have any students depending on the study outcome to provide material for a thesis. Collectively, we need this study to succeed in getting some clear insights on the Viscount Melville Sound polar bear population, which is in an area with dramatically altered sea ice conditions.

When I was first here in the early 1990s, the area was dominated by thick multiyear ice. Now, multiyear ice is restricted to living-room-sized chunks here and there. As the western exit for the Northwest Passage, this area is likely going to see some major changes as the ice continues to diminish.

As an assistant on the project, I've a limited role to play, but I still have to be cautious about staying on budget. 2014 has been frustratingly slow (again). Plagued by bad weather, we can't really get to the places we want to get to.

During the last study 22 years ago, we didn't even catch any bears in the northernmost corners of the population. Last year, we didn't see any sign of bears up there either, but good management requires good science and good science dictates that we have to attempt to survey the whole population. On the flip side, we can't stay up here forever. We pay a minimum rate to keep the helicopter with us. I'm fortunate that the funding is from government sources dedicated to polar bear inventory: I couldn't afford to run a study like this.

As the sampling period moves along, there's a creeping sense that the weather isn't going to cooperate this year. What to do?

Option 1: stay the course and hope the weather breaks.

Option 2: plan for a year four.

For option 1, I can't just stay because I have responsibilities back on campus and a thesis defense for one of my Ph.D. students looming. For option 2, we don't have the money.

Sometimes everything we do in polar bear research feels like a continuous challenge. A challenge to get funding, do the logistics, get the samples, and get home safely. We've had enough challenges for one year, but do we have the ability to get back again and really complete what we need to do? Waiting another 22 years would be interesting but it won't be me.

Having a good baseline study to compare to will be critical.

More data means more money is needed: a lot more money. 

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