Being COY

April 21, 2010

Polar bear cubs captured, inspected, and released by Hank Harlow's research team. Photo: John Whiteman

The Bears of Summer is back–that’s John Whiteman’s contribution to a collection of polar research dispatches called Ice Stories maintained by the San Francisco Exploratorium. Whiteman, a PhD student in the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology, has returned to Kaktovik on Alaska’s north coast for early spring fieldwork.  He’s part of Hank Harlow’s polar bear physiology study, an NSF-funded research project that aims to understand to what extent warmer summer temps–and attendant changes in sea-ice coverage–may impact polar bears who use the ice as a hunting platform. The Harlow team has been capturing, examining, tagging and releasing bears early and late in the growing season since 2008 to find out if they are successfully feeding during the summer, and if not, how they may be using their own body’s resources (mainly fat) for sustenance.

In his latest post, Whiteman writes about examining a gigantic male, the largest bear he’s ever handled. He also comments on the number of COYs he’s seeing–“COYs” being cubs born around January. The above three are taking a snooze on their bear mama while waiting for  a short-lasting dose of anesthesia to wear off.

So far, the team has had some success in recapturing bears tagged last year and in capturing new ones as well; this is particularly good news given that last fall’s capture and study period was hampered by poor ice conditions that prevented the researchers from safely reaching the bears.


North Pole Environmental Observatory

April 13, 2010

A winch at the National Science Foundation's North Pole Environmental Observatory is used to retrieve a mooring that has been collecting oceanographic data from the Arctic Ocean for a year. Photo: Peter West/National Science Foundation

American research teams returned this week to ice station Barneo, a Russian logistics hub floating on sea-ice covering the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole. There, they continue some baseline measurements of oceanic and atmospheric conditions collected since 2000. With National Science Foundation funding, the University of Washington’s Jamie Morison leads the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO) effort, an international collaboration.

“Six personnel flew to Barneo on 10 April over the course of two flights,” wrote Tom Quinn (Polar Field Services), who is now positioned at Longyearbyen, on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, through April. Tom in Longyearbyen and Andy Heiberg at Barneo are coordinating NPEO logistics from both locations.

The armchair North Pole scientists among us will recall that the true course of work at ice camp Barneo is always a challenge, and so far, this year is no exception.

“During the evening/early morning a large lead opened up across the runway and through camp,” Tom wrote over the weekend. “The runway was 1.8km in length but it is now unusable. The field staff at Barneo have marked out a new runway and taken several passes on it with a bulldozer to groom it. The field staff are also moving structures such as the galley and berthing tents across the lead to consolidate the camp in one place.”

Over the next two weeks or so, NPEO researchers will pass between the Longyearbyen staging point and the ice camp Barneo, approximately 700 miles away. They will fly to the ice camp via a chartered AN-74, a Russian STOL jet airplane. (The An-74 gets its nickname, Cheburashka, from the large engine intake ducts, which resemble the oversized ears of the popular Russian animated creature with the same name.)

Members of the team will recover an instrumented mooring that has been fixed to the ocean floor some 2.5 below the surface since 2008. The mooring holds instruments that capture baseline measurements—ocean temperature and salinity, current strength and direction, and sea-ice conditions, for example. Other NPEO researchers will fly hydrographic surveys in a Twin Otter, deploying instruments that will collect similar information as they sink slowly through the water column. In addition, a MI-8 helicopter will land near individual instruments previously deployed; researchers will send a radio signal and the instruments will release their data payload, sending atmospheric, weather, sea-ice and upper ocean water column information to the team on the sea ice.

In The News

January 8, 2010

Sea Ice Loss Impacts Polar Bear Habitat

Data from a long-term study finds more polar bears in open water or on land, likely as a result of diminishing sea ice. Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Science Daily reports that a long-term study from 1979 to 2005 shows that polar bears today are found more frequently on land and open water than on ice in the fall, increasing the opportunity for human/bear interactions. Published in the December issue of Arctic, the journal of the Arctic Institute of North America, the study documents significant polar bear habitat changes in response to differing ice conditions. Between 1979 and 1987, 12 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice, according to the study. Between 1997 and 2005, 90 percent of bear sightings were associated with no ice. The number of bears sighted also increased during the study’s duration from 138 bears in the period of 1979 to 1987, 271 bears between 1988 and 1996, and finally to 468 bears between 1997 and 2005. NSF-funded and CPS-supported scientists like University of Wyoming’s Hank Harlow among others, are conducting polar bear research in part to better understand climate change’s impact on the creatures. Scientists studying sea ice extent have identified a decline in fall freeze since the late 1970s, a trend they suggest is related to climate change.

Spies Like Us

A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from 1999-2008. This image has been degraded to hide the satellite’s true capabilities. Photo: New York Times.

The New York Times reports that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is sharing data with climate science after resuming a collaboration that had been cancelled by the Bush administration. The two disparate groups seek to “assess the hidden complexities of environmental change … and insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests,” according to the article. Last year the collaborators studied reconnaissance satellite images of Arctic sea ice to identify summer melts from climate trends. In addition, the CIA has declassified images of the ice pack to speed the scientific analysis.

Filmmaker To Stop at Seattle Boat Show

The 57-foot Nordhavn Bagan will be on display at the Seattle Boat Show. Filmmaker Sprague Theobald piloted this vessel through the Northwest Passage last year during the making of a documentary. Photo: Northwest Passage Film

If, like us, you have been waiting to get a glimpse of more detailed footage from Emmy Award winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald’s 2009, five-month journey through the Northwest Passage, look no further than the 2010 Seattle Boat Show January 29-February 6, 2010. Theobald will show unreleased footage and give tours of his 57′ Nordhavn Bagan, which transported him and a small crew stocked with family members from Rhode Island to Washington State, via the Arctic.

In Out of The Cold

While much of the northern hemisphere is experiencing unusually bitter cold temperatures, climes in the far north are much warmer than usual. According to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the December average air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean region, eastern Siberia and northwestern North America ranged between 2 to 7 degrees Celsius. According to the report, Arctic Oscillation (AO) is likely causing the temperature disparities. Scientists refer to the current trend as a “negative phase” of AO, defined by high pressure systems in the Arctic and lower-than-normal pressures in middle latitudes.

The image below shows air temperature anomalies for December 2009, at the 925 millibar level (roughly 1,000 meters [3,000 feet] above the surface) for the region north of 30 degrees N.  Warmer-than-usual temperatures over the Arctic Ocean and cooler-than-normal temperatures over central Eurasia, the United States and southwestern Canada are documented here. Areas in orange and red correspond to strong positive (warm) anomalies. Areas in blue and purple correspond to negative (cool) anomalies.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division

Arctic Studies Pioneer Dies

Arctic studies pioneer and philanthropist Evelyn Steffannson Nef died on Dec. 9, 2009, at 96. Founder of Dartmouth College's arctic studies program, Nef also published two books on the Arctic. Photo: Courtesy

Evelyn Stefansson Nef died Dec. 9, 2009 in her Washington D.C. home at the age of 96. Nef was an author and philanthropist, and along with her husband, she helped found the first arctic studies program at Dartmouth College. Nef’s first two books, published in 1943 and 1946 respectively, were about Alaska and the Arctic. The University of Alaska granted Nef an honorary doctorate in 1998 for her foundational role in the early days of the field of arctic studies. Read more about Nef’s life here.

—Rachel Walker

Polar Bear Researchers of Summer

June 9, 2009
PhD student John Whiteman (U Wyoming) and polar bear cub. Photos courtesy John Whiteman for Exploratorium

Scientist John Whiteman and polar bear cub. Photos courtesy John Whiteman for Exploratorium

It looks as if grad student John Whiteman (U Wyoming) is living the dream of countless polar bear admirers.

For Whiteman, it’s all in a day’s field work. The PhD student spent about six weeks on the northern shore of Alaska this spring capturing and collecting samples from polar bears along the Beaufort Sea cost, to study how environmental change may be impacting the species. Whitman is part of Hank Harlow’s NSF-funded research aimed at understanding how polar bears are responding to the loss of arctic sea ice, an important hunting platform for the species.

Along with researchers from a long-term USGS study, Whiteman captured about 30 bears during his stay, locating them via low-flying helicopters, darting them from the air, and then landing to assess and sample the animals while they were unconscious. A subset of bears–those whose neck circumference was small enough to fit in the radio collar–were fitted with transmitters, both to capture data that allows scientists to understand the bears’ movements as summer takes hold and the sea ice goes out from the shore, and also to aid in recapture this fall for repeat measurements. After a period of six months or so, the collars will release automatically if the bears aren’t recaptured and manually freed from the transmitters.

A female encircles her cub as they sleep off the affects of anesthesia. "Generally the anesthesia we use does not wear off in a sudden fashion, and we monitor animals closely during captures," Whiteman explained in an email to us. "The cubs get a lights dose, so by the time we finish up they usually have found their way over to their mom, and are waiting for her to wake up."

A female encircles her cub as they sleep off the affects of anesthesia. "Generally the anesthesia we use does not wear off in a sudden fashion, and we monitor animals closely during captures," Whiteman explained in an email to us. "The cubs get a light dose, so by the time we finish up they usually have found their way over to their mom, and are waiting for her to wake up."

In addition to the research, Whiteman posted a series of reports for San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum, recipient of an NSF IPY outreach grant. Whiteman’s collection of writings, Bears of Summer, explains the research. He offers detailed views of his work: it was news to us that the scientists capture breath samples in specially designed bags, and that they can learn much about the animals’ general health and dietary habits from those packets of beary air.

This anesthetized male lies by a breath bag. The grey mat he lies on allows researchers to take Body Mass Index measurements as well.

This anesthetized male lies by a breath bag. The grey mat he lies on allows researchers to take Body Mass Index measurements as well.

There are wide-angle views too. Check the bird’s-eye view of a seal kill in the post called “Getting By Without Food.”

We wrote to Whiteman to inquire about his fall plans. He says he will return in August to the Beaufort Sea coast, and then board a Coast Guard ship in September to find bears that have followed the retreating sea ice north. Repeat measurements will provide information about how much or little the bears fed during the warm months, and their relative fitness compared with assessments made this spring. Internet access willing, Whiteman will continue his posts. “We are very excited about the intensive physiological data we are gathering, which is allowing us to answer new and important questions about how bears live over the summer,” he writes.

Armchair researchers, mark your calendars for August–and bookmark the Exploratorium Ice Stories site.