In April last year, I joined scientists from the Government of Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic who were conducting an innovative population survey of polar bears. Why? Because in order to help conserve this iconic species, we need better data to accurately assess how climate change will affect them. And that’s where innovation and technology comes in…
Polar bears are at a crossroads. The greatest threat to their survival is climate change and the predicted loss of their sea ice habitat over the coming decades. But it’s not a uniform picture across the Arctic. Although the bears are doing well in many areas, they’re declining in others. With much of the Arctic in meltdown, we could see polar bear numbers reduced by a third by the middle of this century.
Surprisingly, we don’t know for certain how many bears roam the Arctic. The best estimate is about 26,000 in the wild, but there could be anywhere between 22,000 to 31,000 bears. The environment to which they’ve adapted to survive over millennia is vast, harsh and a difficult place for scientists to work – and the bears blend in well to their Arctic icescape.
For such an iconic, apex predator, it still concerns me that we don’t have enough basic information to accurately assess what’s happening to polar bears on a global scale, and how best to safeguard healthy populations.
About 60% of the world’s polar bears and 13 of the 19 ‘subpopulations’ are in or shared with Canada. Currently, six of those polar bear subpopulations are assessed to be stable, one is increasing, and three are in decline. We just don’t have sufficient data to know what’s happening to the rest.
M’Clintock Channel in the Canadian Arctic is one of the 19 subpopulations and it’s particularly important as the sea ice there does not entirely break up over summer – so it remains critical feeding habitat for bears following the lean winter months.
Solving the polar bear puzzle
I’ve joined the population survey team in Resolute Bay in the Canadian Arctic. Resolute is one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, and it’s so far north that you often have to look south to see the northern lights. The locals joke that it’s not quite the end of the Earth – but you can see it from here!
It’s about -45°C with wind-chill when I step off the plane and meet Markus Dyck, the Government of Nunavut’s senior polar bear biologist. We’re here to undertake fieldwork in M’Clintock Channel, which will contribute towards an accurate population estimate, and help put together a small piece of the polar bear population puzzle.
Unfortunately, our helicopter is stuck in bad weather further south, in Goose Bay. While we wait for it to arrive, we use the time to run through the protocols for bear, seal and sea ice observations. We also undertake a recce flight in a ski-mounted Twin Otter airplane to part of our study area, Cape Webb on Prince of Wales Island.
We fly 10-mile transects at an altitude of 300ft, covering an area around 3,700 km2. With only one polar bear sighting in this vast area, we conclude that this is low-density bear habitat. We abandon early season plans to work out of Cape Webb on Prince of Wales Island.
With the arrival of our helicopter, we move further south and set up camp in the small field hut at Cape Sydney at the northern end of King William Island (North 69◦50.667, West 97◦39.159).
As the sun sets on our first evening at Cape Sydney, I catch a fleeting glimpse of a young bear out on the distant ice. It passes between rumples of ice on the frozen ocean and then it’s gone. I suspect it’s a yearling or two-year old, so its mother must be nearby.
Over the next three days, the winds blow up to 45 knots and visibility drops. We are grounded. An inquisitive Arctic fox ambles up near the hut to check out its new neighbours. An Arctic hare is startled as I open the door, and bounds off on its disproportionately large feet. And two curious, brilliant-white ptarmigan drop in to check us out, before scratching out seeds along the exposed parts of the shore. I wonder if it’s the same two that I saw up on CairnGorm Mountain in Scotland earlier this year. The Arctic is closer to the UK than you might think: it’s in our backyard and what happens there affects us all.
As the winds subside, polar bear tracks in the fresh snow outside the front door of our hut suggest the mother and cub took a keener interest in us than we were aware of…
Read part two of the blog on International Polar Bear Day (27 February) to find out what happened next on my trip.