Svalbard is the Norwegian High Arctic, straight north of Norway at a latitude similar to that of northern Greenland. It is a wild, beautiful part of the Arctic though not as pristine as its location might suggest. Centuries of intensive harvesting have left but a fragment of the original populations of whales and walruses. Harvesting of polar bears ceased altogether in 1973.
For the past eight years, I have spent a month or so in early summer working as a guide/lecturer for an ecotourism company. One of the main reasons I continue to work on so-called “expedition ships” in Svalbard is that it gives me an opportunity to observe bears in the pack ice—an environment that it is difficult and expensive to access. I have also conducted research on polar bears in Canada for over 40 years, which gives me some background to lecture about polar bears and interpret the things we see to the passengers.
This was a particularly interesting year in Svalbard. Because of climate warming, the trend toward shrinking glaciers and loss of sea ice has been continuing but was especially strong through this past winter. One can follow the distribution and formation of sea ice in Svalbard at the website Polar View. I do that through every winter, but last year I was stunned to see that the annual ice that is normally present in the fjords and interisland channels of the archipelago by late winter, much of which is still there by early summer along with drifting pack in the interisland channels, was almost totally absent. Fjords that would normally still have some annual ice by late June or early July had none.
One possible sign of difficulties with feeding because of lack of good ice on which polar bears could hunt seals was the finding of an emaciated adult male dead on an island along the north coast of Svalbard. The bear had been tagged so I passed the tag number on to Dr. Jon Aars, the polar bear scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute who had tagged it. He told me it had been in OK physical condition when captured in April and that it was a 16-year-old male. It had been tagged and recaptured in previous years along the western coast of the southern end of the island of Spitsbergen, and it was unusual for bears that lived in the south to go to the north. It died well north of where it had previously been known to live, although it was not possible to make any reliable estimate of the distance traveled prior to its demise.
The bear was extremely thin, had no apparent fat at all, nor any outward sign of wounds of any kind. From the way the body was lying, it appeared the bear was walking and finally collapsed, dying where he fell, and dropping with his front legs out behind him. This information, when combined with the satellite information on poor ice conditions over the previous winter and spring, made it seem to me that the likely cause of death was starvation. However, because of course I did not have a research permit, I could not handle the carcass, make any cuts to check for the presence of any fat deposits on the rump or elsewhere, or collect any specimens such as the leg bones to have their fat content analyzed independently.
I was very clear throughout my discussions with the passengers about this bear that although starvation appeared to me to be the likely cause of death, in the absence of reliable information from a proper necropsy, this conclusion cannot be stated with absolute certainty. That is a very important scientific distinction. Thus, I was a bit disappointed, though not that surprised, that I have been quoted as saying it is certain the bear died of starvation in some news outlets. That simply isn’t correct. Something to still reflect upon though is that although we cannot say unequivocally that the bear in northern Svalbard died as a result of climate warming, such an event is entirely consistent with the predictions for polar bears as a result of climate warming. And, if climate warming continues unabated, with associated loss of sea ice at critical periods for feeding, polar bear scientists predict an increase in such sad events.
In some other parts of the archipelago, we saw and heard of bears that were thin, and one large, skinny male was behaving threateningly near a settlement. But some of the bears appeared to be doing fine. However, when we went north into the pack ice to look for bears, all of those we had a good look at were in excellent physical condition. Clearly, bears that are able to remain with annual ice over the relatively shallow waters of the continental shelf appear to still be doing fine. Unfortunately, there was no such ice in the archipelago by early July this year.
Ian Stirling, Ph.D.
Scientific Advisor to Polar Bears International and author of, Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species