WWF Polar Bear Tracker. Photo: Georg Bangjord.
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Svalbard 2002

High winds, broken ice, and rain. These are not the normal conditions one expects to find during an expedition to the Arctic to study the ecology of polar bears but indeed this is what was found during the WWF sponsored field season in 2002. Dr. Andrew Derocher and Magnus Andersen of the Norwegian Polar Institute, were based at Hopen Island and in Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Archipelago during April.

Hopen is normally an ideal location for studying bears as the weather station provides a convenient place to work and the bears often come right by the station so they are easy to find. Unfortunately, this year, the spring was very warm and strong winds broke the ice into small pieces making it very poor habitat for polar bears. Only one bear passed the station this year while more than fifty are normal.

Despite these difficulties, they managed to fly out from Hopen using a small helicopter and sampled several bears. A drug-filled dart was shot into the rump of each bear from the helicopter. Once the bear was asleep, a series of body measurements to monitor growth patterns and condition were collected and a sample blood, fat and milk taken to monitor pollution levels.

Overall, the poor ice conditions caused a shift northward in the distribution of the bears. No seal kills were observed in the drift ice and this suggests the bears were having a tough time finding food. The generally poor condition of the captured bears further supports this. Only one maternity den was found on Hopen Island. In a good year, over thirty dens can be found there. It seems that the late arrival of sea ice the previous winter makes it less attractive to pregnant females seeking a safe place for giving birth to their young.

Leaving Hopen Island ahead of schedule, the research team moved into Longyearbyen -- the main settlement in Svalbard -- and continued to study the bears in this area. Again, poor weather hampered the efforts but some valuable insights were obtained on the distribution and habitat of the bears close into land.

Recent research findings have revealed interesting results. Polar bears in the Barents Sea drift ice may be more dependent upon bearded seals than bears living near land. Bears living closer to land rely more on ringed seals and this difference is due to the preferred habitat of the different seal species. Understanding the current diet of polar bears is critical for understanding how climate change may affect the bears in the future.

Other recent results suggest that the bears in the Svalbard area may be somewhat smaller than populations in North America. The reasons are unclear but it may be that life in the drifting pack ice is more difficult than the more stable ice of North American.

Finally, another interesting part of the puzzle was revealed by research conducted by Mette Mauritzen who recently completed her doctorate on polar bear ecology at the University of Oslo in cooperation with the Norwegian Polar Institute. Dr. Mauritzen found that polar bears living in the Barents Sea are living on the sea ice equivalent of a treadmill. Sea ice is pushed around by winds and currents. Polar bears spend most of the year walking against the drift to ensure they do not lose contact with ice by drifting out into the open waters further south. This finding has important ramifications for understanding climate change impacts because the stronger winds predicted for the Barents Sea under climate change scenarios would result in polar bears using more energy to stay with the main ice pack. Using more energy for walking means less energy for growth and reproduction.

All-in-all, the field season of 2002 was difficult. Polar bears do not easily reveal the secrets of their life on the sea ice and it takes many years and great patience to gain the insights needed to conserve these magnificent animals.

Andy Derocher, a Norwegian Polar Institute scientist, with tranquillized polar bear.

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