Polar Bear Researchers

For all of us who love polar bears and who have been actively involved in conservation efforts, 2010 would appear to have been a continuation of the trends of recent years: Climate change-driven sea ice losses were dramatic and reached record lows, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions continued to mount, and polar bear populations continued to be impacted by these factors and other, more localized, unusual weather patterns. All told, the mantra of polar bear conservation didn’t change in 2010: We must continue to reduce our energy use and resulting CO2 emissions, or the polar bear will be lost. While many of us have worked hard at reducing our carbon footprint, this sobering reality tells us that we all have to do more, and we all have to share our passion for polar bears and their conservation with others.
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A young male polar bear is trapped in ice slush.

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, to work with Polar Bears International. This was my 10th year of doing so, and, as many of you know, I have seen dramatic changes in the environment and animals that live there in just this decade. This year has provided the shortest ice season in recorded time: the polar bears lost a full nine weeks of hunting time. The water and air temperatures for November and December continue to be above normal, delaying the formation of ice again this year. The polar bears have been hunting during low tide and have been fortunate to occasionally find harbor seals resting among the rocks. The bears must be vigilant that they return to the shore before the tide rushes in.
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As we head into the winter months of the Northern Hemisphere, bears across the globe are preparing for a change in weather. But not all bears respond to the season in the same way.

Wild brown and black bears are facing a bleak time of limited food availability in the coldest months of the year. For this reason, late in fall they engage in hyperphagia, compulsively eating anything they can get their paws on. This builds layers of fat that will be essential to keeping them warm and healthy through the upcoming winter. (more…)

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Two young males sparring.

Megan is reporting from Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Returning to the Polar Bears.

There are beautiful, calm, sunny days up here where you start to believe that you might begin to master the art of living in the polar bear’s Arctic home. But then, out of nowhere, the weather moves in. Of course the weather up here has any number of combinations of cold, rain, snow, and wind. And what really keeps you on your toes is that it can turn on a dime, leaving you feeling hopelessly ill-equipped to stand outside, even for a few minutes.
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Flying to Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, always fills me with excitement and anticipation. And as the flight into town began its descent, I felt like I was going home. I love it up here. I love the smell of the cold and the enormous sky. I first came to Churchill in 1993 as a graduate student, and I am happy to return to the Polar Bear Capital of North America as a panelist for Polar Bears International’s Tundra Connections program.

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There is so much going on in the world of polar bears that it is hard to keep up and stay afloat. Progress is being made with conservation, research, education, and leadership. The San Diego Zoo and its partner, Polar Bears International, have made drastic steps in the direction of leadership to try to make a difference for polar bears, their habitat, and their future.
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Kalluk shakes off.

Why no Polar Cam? Have you looked recently? The Polar Cam has been replaced by a new HD camera system, and it looks so much better! And in keeping with our message of reducing our waste, the old camera will be reused in our Polar Bear Park (the new management yard behind the main polar bear exhibit)! We have been able to raise enough funds to add some cameras and the ability to pan-tilt-zoom! This will help us see where our bears are from inside the polar bear building and what antics our trio is up to. In addition—YES!—we will be installing an Internet hookup so that in the event Chinook has cubs, we will be able to show her den live on our Web site! With the installation of the cameras in the park, we will also be able to watch the bears in the pool. We are hoping to have all the work done by the beginning of July. We want to have lots of practice with it by the fall!
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Megan is doing polar bear field research in Alaska’s North Slope. Read her previous post, Field Note: Like a Heat Wave.

A researcher in the artifical polar bear den

I spent the morning setting up sensitive microphones in the relative warmth of a “polar bear” den, which we dug ourselves. The floor of the den was about 2 meters (6.5 feet) below the surface of the snow. After I relayed the cable to a crew-member, I took a moment and sat on the floor of the den. I admired the construction of the den and the quiet, protected environment that we had created.

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When we talk about climate change, one of the first things we need to clarify is the difference between climate and weather. The term “climate” refers to the longer-term trends in atmospheric conditions that characterize a particular region. The term “weather” refers to what’s happening at the moment: the day-to-day atmospheric conditions in a particular location. For example, I can guess that right now, in San Diego, the weather is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), and there is no rain. That description of the weather fits right into the climactic norms for San Diego in April. Right now, the weather at our field site on the North Slope of Alaska (see previous post, The Science of Shoveling Snow) is about -11.2 degrees Fahrenheit (-24 degrees Celsius), with light winds out of the northeast and no precipitation.
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I arrived yesterday in Alaska and traveled up to the North Slope this morning. Today is the first day of fieldwork for our study of how vehicular noise penetrates the snow and ice of a polar bear’s den. Much of our polar bear research revolves around exploring their acoustic ecology. Our interest, and that of our project sponsor, Polar Bears International (PBI), is to develop a better understanding of the impact of industrial and vehicular noise on denning polar bears. Because pregnant polar bears excavate snow dens in some of the same areas that hold much of the Arctic’s petroleum deposits, there is a keen interest to assess the potential impacts of these activities and develop more effective mitigation strategies in the near future.
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