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The Queens of Svalbard

 

My Colleague Gert from WWF Netherlands has just returned from a trip with the Norwegian Polar Institute polar bear research crew on board the MS Lance, and it’s safe to say the trip was nothing like he expected.

The mission was to capture and tag polar bears, take body measurements and fit females with satellite transmitters, in order to  assess how the Svalbard population is doing and how they are adapting to their rapidly changing environment.

Svalbard Polar BearSvalbard Polar Bear ©Brutus Ostling

‘Last year, during a 2 week period over April- May, 73 bears were encountered of which 18 females were collared. The timing coincided with females emerging from their dens with their new born cubs, heading for the sea ice where their favourite prey, ringed seals, are pupping. The daily sea ice maps looked promising enough, but once we left port, we found something was amiss. We headed north along the west coast of Svalbard through open water– due to the warm gulfstream open water is what we indeed expected, but when we rounded the north of Spitsbergen Island, there was no sea ice. Meaning no polar bears.

We had to venture deep into the many fjords of Svalbard to find some land-fast ice, and some ringed seals. The melting ice impact is not just hitting the polar bears- it is affecting the entire eco systems. Returning from the first helicoptered search for polar bears, Dr. Jon Aars showed several pictures of blooded ice surrounding plain breathing holes of ringed seals. Several shots contained the carcasses of ringed seal pups being devoured by polar bears, polar fox and glaucous gulls.

The little ice there had been frozen over so recently that hardly any snow had accumulated, meaning sealpups cannot be hidden in snow caves and remains unprotected. Jon said that in some of the fjords studied by NPI, no single seal pup made it to adulthood since 2005… We don’t yet know what the impact of this will be. Do they shift to more northerly places? Will at some stage the ageing population crash? Bad for the seals but also bad for the polar bears who rely on them for food.

Svalbard Ice Caps

Apart from one female, we encountered no bears near the ship, despite our complete circumnavigation of the archipelago.

Jon and his team, aided by a helicopter, had more luck but still found only two females with new cubs, two very skinny adults were seen, and only two dens were detected – low numbers compared to previous years.

We can’t draw conclusions on the basis of a single year’s observation, but in the evenings we speculated about tipping points; are we seeing the beginning of an accelerating downward trend? Do the polar bears make it to the sea ice when winds shift and drive northern ice to the shores? Will they march to Frans Josefland and beyond in Russia? Why do some polar bears seem to choose to remain on land throughout the summer, as there is no food for them to be found there?

Jon and his team with the helicopterJon and his team with the helicopter

All these questions were relevant and important as the change the Arctic is facing was there right in front of us: melting sea ice, a changing climate. That is the reason why this research is so important. We have to understand and know what is happening so we can be prepared to take the best possible measures to safeguard polar bears and the Arctic.

The support we’re providing to this work is vital and makes us proud, tinged with sadness that the support is necessary.

We were stunned by the breath taking beauty of the Arctic scenery of Svalbard with its jagged mountains and glaciers. Svalbard has its dark whaling past but we were silenced by what we had seen and experienced; changes in the Arctic are not remote or vague, they are happening here and now with quiet force which heralds hard times for all these wonderful species unique to the Arctic –  the polar bears, the narwhal and bowhead whales, the little auks.

As Arctic glaciers and the Greenland icecap continue to melt, sea levels at our doorstep continue to rise.

However, instead of returning depressed, we returned even more motivated to continue our work to safeguard the Arctic from additional pressures such as irresponsible oil and gas, unsafe shipping and unsustainable fisheries. We challenge the governments and the public alike to get real: take the shift to a new economy based on renewables seriously and speedily! There’s still time but we need to act now.

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