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Not a complete count

A young polar bear male who wisited the research vessel Lance in the ice north of Svalbard. FOTO: Nick Cobbing, Norwegian Polar Institute

Not a complete count

Neither the Russians nor the weather cooperated in this year's large-scale polar bear census. That may affect the outcome.

There were very high expectations associated with the project, which for the first time in 11 years would do a thorough count of the polar bears from Svalbard to Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic.

That did not happen. The Russians said "nyet" and the weather proved uncooperative on the Norwegian side.

Heavy calculations

"We had large problems the conditions, especially up in the ice edge," said Jon Aars, a polar bear expert at the Norwegian Polar Institute, in an interview with Svalbardposten following the month-long cruise in and around Svalbard. "We therefore did not quite reach our objectives with everything we intended to do."

"This means that we will have a more difficult job of analyzing the data, quite simply," he said.

A population count is a complicated affair.

Scientists fly in straight lines across the landscape and take note of the distance to the animals observed.

By churning the numbers through large statistical models, they will get a measure of how many animals are located within an area.

But this requires flying weather and good visibility.

And that was scarce all along the counting area.

"We got particularly bad coverage in the east, north of the ice edge," Aars said. "We may use data from females who have received transmitters earlier, see how they have moved up there and put it into a model. But it will be a big job."


The analytical work in the aftermath will be more time consuming and difficult, and the final figure on the number of bears at risk of being afflicted with greater uncertainty.
The main purpose of this year's expedition was to find out how the situation has evolved since the last census.

Climate change and less sea ice affects the animals' access to food and breeding grounds, but nobody knows for sure how this has affected the stock.

In 2004, it was estimated there were between 1,850 and 3,400 bears in the Barents population. Aars said he does not know how accurate the numbers they got from this year's major expedition will be.

"There may be uncertainty similar to that in 2004," he said. "On the islands around Svalbard we got very good counts and there is a small uncertainty. Up in the ice it is significant."

Would a new count on the ice next year remedy the situation?

"No, it's difficult," Aars said. "Probably it will not be the same conditions there next summer, with bears that are distributed differently around. There are no good ways to fix this. The optimum is to cover all areas in the shortest possible time."

Will take time

There are a total of 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears spread over 19 different stocks.
It may take a long time before we find out how many are "ours" when data is missing from essential areas on both sides of the border.
Since the Russians didn't want to cooperate in the project, the population in and around Franz Josef Land will be estimated, and inferred indirectly from old numbers and tracking data.

"The follow-up work is going to take a number of months, except I cannot say exactly how many," Aars said. "It would had gone faster if it were not for the problems. We will sit down and begin as soon as possible."

It is highly uncertain whether the Russians will conduct a thorough count on its own initiative in the near future.

One consolation is the observed polar bears have been in very good health.

"They have been in very good form, that I can say with certainty," Aars said. "Both up on the ice and on the islands. By Storfjorden and Barentsøya have they simply have been fat. The explanation is that there has been a good ice year."

Translated by Mark Sabbatini


Se bildet større

Researcher Jon Aars on the bridge aboard the coastguard vessel Svalbard. FOTO: Nick Cobbing, Norwegian Polar Institute

Se bildet større

In addition to the census, four bears anesthetized in East Svalbard. Now they wander around with transmitters. Here is the skull of one of them measured at Kongsøya. FOTO: Nick Cobbing, Norwegian Polar Institute

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