The Bears up There
Svalbard is a favourite stomping ground for polar bears – and numbers are looking up.
There’s an old saying that there are more polar bears than people on Svalbard, but the science and survival of the polar bear population in the Norwegian Arctic is a far more complex story.
“A lot of the research we do is aiming to try to find exactly how much change these polar bears can tolerate.” — Dr Jon Aars
In 2015, Dr Jon Aars and his colleagues from the Norwegian Polar Institute released their research on the current polar bear population in Svalbard, and it went viral. After years of bad press about sea ice loss and climate change, it seemed like there was finally some good news out of the Arctic: polar bear numbers on Svalbard were on the rise.
“What we found in 2015 was that the population still did quite well. And we think a lot of things have not changed since then, “ says Dr Jon Aars, who compared data from 2004 and 2015 to show that Norway’s polar bear population on Svalbard had actually risen.
The fact that polar bears were doing okay was widely celebrated against a backdrop of growing scientific concern about climate change in the Arctic, yet the headlines tell only a fraction of the complex tale of the world’s largest land-based predator.
“What we don't know, of course, is whether or not there is some sort of a threshold approaching if conditions continue to get worse – like if more sea ice is lost – and the predictions are that they will lose more habitat in future years and decades,” says Dr Aars.
“A lot of the research we do is aiming to try to find exactly how much change these polar bears can tolerate.”
And so far, polar bears have tolerated quite a bit. Up until 1973 they were hunted in the Norwegian Arctic, and since then the population has been in recovery mode. Listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, their numbers are said to be between 22,00 and 31,000 worldwide.
While the pressures of hunting on the Barents Sea polar population eased, the stress of irregular sea ice conditions took its place, as climate change irreversibly altered the natural habitat of the bear population globally.
The impact of climate change on the bears of Svalbard has had specific implications: sea ice begins to freeze later and melt earlier, and it is also thinner, meaning their main prey, seals, find it harder to den on the ice where the bears hunt. The edge of the sea ice where they hunt is also often located several degrees further north than it was previously, forcing the bears to either travel further over the ice or to swim back and forth across open passages of water. For pregnant bears, this can also make it harder to reach their denning areas on Svalbard.
The Svalbard population is estimated to number around 250 to 300 bears, while the remainder of the population migrate and roam the edge of the sea ice around the Barents Sea, covering parts of Norway and Russia.
New research indicates the migratory bears are travelling further north as the sea ice recedes, and the ones who stay on Svalbard are adjusting their diet: plundering bird nests and eating reindeer, in addition to the spring seal pups that are their primary prey.
Because they were so heavily hunted up until the 1970s, scientists like Dr Aars are looking at the carrying capacity – that is, the number of any species an environment can take before it is adversely impacted – to see if this is a factor to their current healthy numbers on Svalbard.
“We've experienced a lot of habitat loss in the area,” says Dr Aars. “There is much less sea ice then there used to be. But what it indicates, I think, is that still with the sea ice condition we have today, polar bears are able to breed.”
Currently the sea ice, even in a diminishing capacity, can sustain the polar bear population – for now.
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Hurtigruten Expeditions team member Monica Votvik has observed over the seasons the way sea ice influences the behaviour of bears in their natural environment.
“If there is a lot of ice, we see less polar bears, as they have a bigger area to be on,” says Monica. “If there’s less ice further out, we see more polar bears.”
Monica, who lived on Svalbard for 15 years, believes that it’s not only the bears who are adapting. The biggest change she has seen is the mindset of people towards polar bears. Recently, a number of fjords have been closed to traffic so that polar bears and seals can avoid human interaction.
Rather than seeing them as deadly maneaters, Monica believes polar bears should be respected for their curiosity and tenacity – and ability to survive against the odds.
For all the real and concerning challenges facing the population, Dr Aars thinks it is important people remember polar bears are resilient.