Daily BulletinHoliday Centre

The Conversation

  • Written by The Conversation
imageKitty Terwolbeck, CC BY

The case of Russian scientists trapped in their remote Arctic base by a group of inquisitive yet hungry polar bears does not come as a surprise. By late summer, Arctic sea ice is at a minimum and polar bears are effectively landlocked in coastal areas eagerly awaiting the return of ice during the autumn freeze and the chance to hunt seals again.

The Arctic summer is also the time of year when scientific activities are at their maximum, with bases operating at capacity and fieldwork operations at full flow, particularly in tundra and coastal regions. Polar bears are hungriest when scientists are busiest – “encounters” are inevitable.

Researchers working in the Arctic, particularly in and around the Arctic Ocean and its coastal seas, usually have to undergo some type of polar bear encounter training before embarking on fieldwork. This inevitably involves familiarisation with a large calibre hunting rifle and getting practice on a shooting range. Most Arctic settlements and scientific bases have a designated area for target practice and this can be accompanied by a short course on polar bear awareness.

A rifle is a “must have” and should be kept close to hand when out in the field. However, it is usually the last line of defence. A team of researchers in the field are likely to be equipped with flares and flare pistols – the latter equipped with special “flash-bang” rounds, aimed at scaring off inquisitive bears. Warning shots with a rifle should also work in deterring a bear, but equally the start-up of a noisy snowmobile engine should have the same effect.

imageThe author on board his noisy polar bear deterrent in the Amundsen Gulf, Canadian Arctic.Sandy Steffen, Author provided

The best advice is to pay attention to your surroundings and stay alert. This may seem obvious when operating in the vicinity of one of the world’s largest predators, but it is very easy for scientists to become absorbed with the task in hand. A team of scientists huddled around a broken instrument or focused on a rare plant will not be aware of an approaching bear.

Operating from scientific research ships carries its own risks. While the ship itself provides security, people operating on sea ice need protection. Surprisingly, visibility on sea ice is often restricted by the presence of ice ridges. These are formed when sheets of ice press up against one another and broken chunks of ice may extend up to three meters above the ice floe. The ridges serve as excellent cover for bears, who use them as hunting corridors, relying on their keen sense of smell to search out prey. For this reason, teams operating on sea ice usually have one team member designated to “ride shotgun”. Pump action shotguns equipped with shells fitted with solid lead slugs are commonly issued on Canadian icebreakers.

imageSomeone always has to be on guard.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

In the past, trapping and hunting were the biggest threat to polar bears and some populations were decimated as a result. However numbers have stabilised at around 20,000 to 25,000 since an international conservation agreement was signed in the 1970s – though polar bears are still officially classified as vulnerable.

These days, the biggest threats are climate change and pollution. As these marine animals are long-lived – a 15-20 year life span is not uncommon in the wild – they accumulate a variety of industrial chemicals that enter Arctic foodwebs through the atmosphere and ocean currents that flow northwards.

Legacy pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the pesticide DDT may have largely been banned, but they still linger in the environment. When I carry out fieldwork in the Arctic, it’s these sorts of chemicals I’m looking for. The pollutants “cycle” between air, soil and sea, eventually accumulating in snow, ice and marine sediments. Once present in seawater and sea ice they are picked up by tiny algae and plankton, which are eaten by fish, and then bigger fish, and so on. At each stage the concentration of these chemicals increases, until they reach astonishingly high levels in polar bears which sit at the top of the food chain.

imageSome encounters end happily – this biologist just wants to check up on the tranquillised bear.Rhode Karyn, US FWS

Concern has grown recently about newer pollutants such as halogenated flame retardants and organofluorine chemicals used in the production of “non-stick” pots and pans. These chemicals interfere with the immune and hormonal systems of polar bears, and they may even be weakening their penis bones.

The effect of climate change, which is most pronounced in the Arctic, is to accelerate spring melt and delay winter freeze, meaning that bears remain landlocked for longer periods of time during the summer. This increases the risk of summer starvation and this, alongside the “co-stress” provided by a changing cocktail of contaminants, provides an existential threat to the polar bear.

This brings us back to the poor Russian scientists holed up in their base. Bears will adapt and seek out new food sources during their summer wait. Hunger and starvation may make them bold and more persistent in their quest for food and is only likely to increase the frequency of human-bear encounters.

Crispin Halsall receives funding from the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Authors: The Conversation

Read more http://theconversation.com/in-the-path-of-the-polar-bears-what-its-like-to-be-an-arctic-scientist-47060


The Conversation


Closing the Gap Statement to Parliament

Mr Speaker, when we meet in this place, we are on Ngunnawal country. I give my thanks and pay my respects to our Ngunnawal elders, past, present and importantly emerging for our future. I honour...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Alan Jones

ALAN JONES: Prime Minister, good morning.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Alan.    JONES: I was just thinking last night when we're going to talk to you today, you must feel as though you've ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Prime Minister Bridget McKenzie press conference

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everybody. The good news is that the Qantas flight is on its way to Wuhan and I want to thank everybody for their cooperation, particularly the Chinese Government as...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Top 5 Green Marketing Ideas for Your Eco-Friendly Small Business

According to studies, about 33 percent of consumers prefer buying from brands that care about their impact on the environment. This is good news for anyone running an eco-friendly business. It’s a...

Diana Smith - avatar Diana Smith

Choosing the Right Coworking Space For Your Business

As the capital of Victoria in Australia, Melbourne is inhabited by millions of people and is known as one of the most liveable cities in the world. The latter is due to the city’s diverse community...

Sarah Williams - avatar Sarah Williams

What Should You Expect from A Carpentry Apprenticeship?

Those wanting to pursue a career in woodwork, whether it be to make furniture, construct buildings or repair existing wooden structures, will have to first commence a carpentry apprenticeship. This ...

News Company - avatar News Company


Travelling With Pets? Here Is What You Should Know

Only a pet parent can understand the dilemma one experiences while planning a vacation. Do you leave your pets at home?  Will you get a pet sitter or someone to take care of them while you are away?...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Be a Smart Frugal Traveller

You are looking through Instagram, watching story after story of your followers overseas at a beach in Santorini, walking through the piazza in Italy, and eating a baguette in front of the Eiffel ...

News Company - avatar News Company


Graduation is the stage of life when a student receives the rewards of hard work of years. It must have taken sleepless nights and tiring days to achieve the task. Now, as you have received your cov...

News Company - avatar News Company