NieuwsuurPolar bears on Spitsbergen
Polar bears seem to have turned into land animals for much of the year. It is striking how they have adapted to climate change, see researchers on Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean.
But the experts are also concerned. Because ice is and remains vital for the survival of the animal species.
The polar bear expert of the Arctic is Jon Aars, affiliated with the Norwegian research institute Norsk Polarinstitutt in Tromsø. Every spring, Aars and his team fly over Spitsbergen to track the comings and goings of polar bears.
If they spot an adult specimen, they stun it with an arrow from the helicopter. Adult females are then collared. Once a day, the collar transmits the position of each polar bear by satellite. The data that Aars then collects forms the basis of research into the influence of climate change on the behavior of polar bears.
Aars sees that the polar bears are adapting well to land life for the time being:
‘When I go out I have to take my gun with me for polar bears’
The Barents Sea, where Spitsbergen is located, now freezes for about four months a year less than three decades ago. “Especially in the spring, the ice is melting increasingly faster in recent decades,” says geologist Wim Hoek (Utrecht University).
This has major consequences for the behavior of the polar bears, says Aars. “They have a much shorter period in which they can hunt on ice. What we see is that they are on land much more than they used to.”
More ice cream?
The Norwegian Ice Service, a subdivision of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute (NMI), monitors the ice surface around Spitsbergen. Out messages on X The NMI would show that the ice surface is increasing and that this is good news.
But nothing is less true. “While these graphs look good, the reality is different,” said William Copeland, one of the NMI scientists. “The local weather conditions are different every year, but the trend is that there is less ice. After a few days of strong southerly winds and waves, the ice surface can shrink again.”
Geologist Hoek agrees: “It is good to see that the sea ice surface around Spitsbergen increased in September, but this is common in the run-up to the dark polar winter. The increase is still below the average over the past forty years. and fits in with a worrying downward trend.”
The polar bear has been protected on Spitsbergen since 1973. Before that it was allowed to hunt the animal, and that was done. The polar bear’s fur was and is sought after and valuable.
At the time, the polar bears on Spitsbergen were not counted. The population has only been systematically monitored since 2004. Now, almost twenty years later, there is actually no shrinkage or growth. According to Aars, between 250 and 300 polar bears live on Spitsbergen. In the Barents Sea as a whole there are approximately 3,000. Not significantly different from 2004.
So what has changed? In short: their behavior. Because the Barents Sea freezes for less time, the polar bears have changed their hunting grounds. Their menu consists, for example, of goose eggs or reindeer. Aars: “The bears are doing fine. But we have to find out where the limit is of what they can still handle.”
A hungry polar bear is extremely aggressive. The population of Spitsbergen has been warned and will only leave the safe area of the town of Longyearbyen with a gun within reach. That is also mandatory.
Line Nagell Ylvisåker knows that all too well. The editor-in-chief of the Spitsbergen newspaper Svalbardposten came across a polar bear while out with her children. “He got pretty close so that was scary.”
“We always carry a gun and a flag to scare them away. They have been returning in recent decades. We need to prepare for more encounters between bears and people.”
The returning polar bears are not the only change in Ylvisåker’s environment. She wrote the book My World Melts about it. “The government here takes many safety measures, for example to prevent the river from suddenly flooding due to meltwater.”
‘Not suddenly brown bears’
Could the polar bear change into a (fully) land animal as climate change continues? Aars is clear about this: that is not going to happen. “The data shows that polar bears do not occur in places where there is no ice all year round. Evolutionarily, they do not change quickly enough. They do not suddenly become a kind of brown bears in a few generations.”
For a polar bear, staying on land is an excursion. It is no coincidence that they are becoming more and more common. The beast is a metaphor of climate change.
Thanks to the Dutch biologist Jouke Prop, who also managed to film polar bears up close during his research into barnacle geese on Spitsbergen.