The picture was taken last weekend on the east side of Spitsbergen. Tourists and residents on snowmobiles encountered a large number of polar bears in a small area. Svalbard Tourism Director Ronny Brunvoll, who makes a living by selling into such experiences, said he has never seen so many bears in one place. Altogether, he said there were at least eight bears, including the female bear with two cubs.
Polar bear researcher Jon Aars and his colleagues at the Norwegian Polar Institute follow more closely the polar bears in Svalbard. Researchers are currently receiving signals from eight polar bears with transmitters that indicate where they are. In addition, there are more transmitters that for various reasons have stopped working or are still in dens. In total there are 19 animals in Svalbard that have been fitted with transmitters during the past year.
"You often find polar bears rather grouped together and that reflects where you can find food," he said. "If I were to guess, they have been north in Storfjorden."
Several of the tagged bears are currently in Storfjorden.
Good – for the time being
Although polar bears are on the Norwegian Red List, the experienced polar bear scientist is not sure it is currently so critical for polar bears around Svalbard, resulting from a loss of sea ice, as the public debate might suggest.
"There is nothing very alarming in the data that suggests there has been a major change in how the bears have it," Aars said. "We see that maybe it is a trend that they have a lower reproduction rate, but all in all it seems to me that the bears are okay at the moment, and I would not put money on the stock that the population is declining in and around Svalbard."
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The researcher points out that people often simplify the polar bears' problem with the summer ice. The bears are dependent on the ice, but not 12 months a year, he said. Part of the challenge in Svalbard's future, he believes, is the distance between the ice and solid land will become too great, and that it will cost them too much energy to swim.
"There will be hundreds of kilometers to swim, using much of their energy and effort," he said.
He believes the future of Svalbard does not look so bright if the climate models indicating a drastic loss of sea ice are correct.
Through the program MOSJ (Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen), the Norwegian Polar Institute monitors climate, fauna and flora. Since 1995, polar bears have been systematically followed through annual surveys. The next survey takes place in April, but existing data shows a clear relationship between the sea ice and the number of bears.
The lack of sea ice is also the major challenge for polar bears, and at Hopen last spring there were no dens registered and at Kongsøya east of the archipelago the number of dens was fewer. When the ice comes too late, it doesn't reach female bears in time and they much choose elsewhere.
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Births per adult female have on average declined during the past 20 years, yet the figures from 1995 to the present day show the proportion of females with one-year-olds has also remained stable. Numbers that stretch back to 1993 show the condition of males in and around Svalbard has been positively stable.
"We see nonetheless a difference in their condition if it is a mild spring," Aars said. "At that time we see that they are in slightly worse shape than when it is cold, but then they recover."
The Norwegian Polar Institute believes, in other words, that the situation is considerably better for polar bears here than, for example, in Western Hudson Bay in Canada. In Hudson Bay, there are now fears the polar bear population will collapse due to climate change.
"It is important to bear in mind that there are very large difference in how polar bears live in the world," Aars said. "It is bad news to lose habitats, but they go through phases. In some places they have found new habitats."
Where is it bad?
"The places where it is worst to be a polar bear are areas furthest south," he said. "But that can also lead to improved conditions further north."