After more than 11 years, the first census of the Polar bear population in the Barents Sea region is finally taking place. Researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute will tranquilize bears and implant transmitters.

Polar bear in the pack ice northeast of Spitsbergen. Photo: Katja Riedel
Polar bear in the pack ice northeast of Spitsbergen. Photo: Katja Riedel

Over the next four weeks, officials from the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) are conducting the first regional census of polar bears in the Svalbard region in 11 years. Problems arose when Russia denied access to its part of the Barents Sea region to Norwegian researchers just weeks ago. The reasons for this decision have not been publicly revealed. The census is therefore a scaled-back version of a long-planned joint count by Norway and Russia. Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher from the NPI, said, he hopes that Russian officials will conduct a count in their territory soon and thus provide researchers with a rough – if not ideal – overall population estimate.

The polar bears are counted from helicopter to cover a larger area and spot bears more easily. Photo: Magnus Andersen, Norwegian Polar Institute
The polar bears are counted from helicopter to cover a larger area and spot bears more easily. Photo: Magnus Andersen, Norwegian Polar Institute

It is assumed that there are between 1,900 and 3,600 polar bears in the Barents Sea region, with numerous factors during the past decade accounting for the large degree of uncertainty.

“It is well known that polar bears have a number of challenges related to climate change and pollution,” wrote Elin Vinje Jenssen, an NPI communications advisor. “Late arrival of sea ice around the traditionally important denning areas as Kongsøya and Hopen in Svalbard has in recent years led to few females having reached the islands to hibernate. In milder years, fewer cubs are born in these areas than in cooler years. Scientists know that many years with little ice can lead to low survival rates, especially among young animals, but it is still uncertain whether this has led to reductions in population size, or if the population is still expanding.”

For the census researchers will fly helicopter transects low to the surface to count polar bears. Additionally bears will be captured, tranquilised and equipped with satellite collars, instruments that give valuable information about polar bears movements and their use of the sea ice habitat. Only female bears can be collared since the have a distinct neck in contrast to the wedge shaped neck –head of male bears.

Satellite tagging in female bears helps researchers to learn and understand the migration routes of polar bears around Svalbard and to keep track of bears. Photo: Magnus Andersen, Norwegian Polar Institute
Satellite tagging in female bears helps researchers to learn and understand the migration routes of polar bears around Svalbard and to keep track of bears. Photo: Magnus Andersen, Norwegian Polar Institute

The researchers departed on the research vessel Lance after packing and testing equipment in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. The census takers are initially traveling south before proceeding northeast to Kong Karls Land. A group of island which is well known for a high polar bear density and also for polar bear research. After that they will head to the ice edge far to the north.

The search of polar bears is conducted mainly on ships as the islands are far apart and too isolated for aerial surveys alone. Photo: Magnus Andersen, The Norwegian Polar Institute
The search of polar bears is conducted mainly on ships as the islands are far apart and too isolated for aerial surveys alone. Photo: Magnus Andersen, The Norwegian Polar Institute

On their expedition, the researchers will also collect data on presence and densities of whales in the northern parts of the region.

Source: Icepeople and Norwegian Polar Institute