There is considerable uncertainty about how large the polar bear in the Barents Sea region really is. A major collaboration between Norway and Russia in 2004 concluded the population in the Norwegian and Russian areas was between 1,850 and 3,400 animals. Researchers are scheduled to perform another count in Svalbard and Franz Josef Land throughout the entire month of August. The government last year earmarked ten million kroner in the state budget for 2015 to conduct the census.
Jon Aars, a polar bear researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, has long been ready, the same can't be said for the Russians. In an interview with Svalbardposten last Friday, he said there is still uncertainty about whether the project can be carried out as planned.
"There is some uncertainty surrounding the project," he said. "That is perhaps not so unusual, but the Russians do not actually have their permits in order. But they are working to get that in order."
What if they don't go through?
If there is not any of that, we may we make a corresponding arrangement on the Norwegian side,"Aars said.
Polar bears are monitored because they are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In addition, they are vulnerable to climate change and pollution. Both of these are impacts caused by humans and monitoring programs are ongoing to capture the consequences of the impacts as quickly as possible. Most recently in April, Aars and his colleagues were out on polar bear expeditions in Svalbard.
The Ministry of Climate and Environment is now engaged in the hope of resolving the census issues. Communications Advisor Jo Randen confirmed there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the joint-monitoring project.
"The required approvals from the Russian side don't exist at present, but we still have the hope that it will resolve itself," Randen wrote in an e-mail to Svalbardposten. "The Climate and Environment Ministry is in constant contact with the Russian authorities through the channels we have at our disposal to ensure that the permits are granted on time."
Is there a danger the count on the Russian side may be canceled?
"If we do not get a positive clarification from the Russian side in a short time it may become difficult to carry out the census in Russia," Randen wrote. "If such a situation should arise, it becomes about whatever there is a count in the Norwegian part of the Barents Sea."
Russian side first
The Lance research vessel is central to the project, which will also involve two helicopters and Norwegian Coast Guard's Svalbard vessel. Half of the time during the project, the two helicopters from Airlift are scheduled to fly parallel with four observers in each machine
The helicopters will, if possible, fly around the clock.
A total of twelve people will be involved in the census, including Russian scientists participating aboard the Lance. Norway is paying for the entire cost of the project. After about three weeks, around Aug. 20, the Coast Guard will take over.
"We must finish what we're doing on the Russian side before we can hop over to the KV Svalbard," Aars said. "We are going as far as the eastern islands of Franz Josef Land and as far north as we can get."
"Given that we get the permission we need, you need get an estimate how many bears there are," he added. "There is quite a large uncertainty and since you are not seeing all of the bears you need only to take an estimate."
More reliable numbers
The equipment is, however, better now than 11 years ago, which scientists believe will provide better reliability for the estimate. The method used is similar to the one for evaluating of grouse, where the observation numbers are counted through specific routes. The distances during the polar bear count are significantly longer, however, and take place with the helicopter flying along the so-called line of transect. This is a common method of counting and requires good statistical calculations.
In addition to the population, the researchers will collect other data such as the number of females with cubs. Absolute certainty is something the scientists will not achieve. But they believe there have been major changes and they are seeking to prove it.
"It's really important for any population to have an idea of what is happening to it and follow over time," Aars said. "If we in some years suspect something new has happened, we are lagging behind if we do not have figures to compare with."
Is the project in anticipation of something happening with the polar bear population?
"That is one motivation for doing this, that we believe there have been major changes with the habitats for polar bears," Aars said. "That means anticipating or expecting that something will happen to the population is an important reason."
The sea ice around and in the fjords of Svalbard has been shrinking. That means there are fewer places for seals – the main prey of polar bears – to emerge and give birth, and therefore fewer hunting grounds for polar bears. In addition, the accessibility to the island is worsening as the ice disappears.
"It is fine to say that there are less habitats, but we don't know what that will turn into," Aars said.
One hope is some females on Franz Josef Land will be fitted with transmitters so they can be monitored using GPS.
"That's a challenge," Aars said. "There's a lot that can come up, it takes a a lot of patience and we can only hope that things are going okay. And that no unforeseen things happen and that the weather is good."
What if the Russians say no?
"Then we will not get an estimate for the Barents Sea population this year, so then we'll take the Norwegian side thoroughly," Aars said. "We will then have something of an estimate of how many bears we have on the Norwegian side, which we can compare with the last survey."