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Polar Bear Den Study: Working In Extreme Cold

/ Post by Wesley Larson of Polar Bears International

If you plan on studying polar bears, you need to prepare yourself to jump some hurdles in your research. One of the main issues we face here in northernmost Alaska is the cold. Sitting in a warm office in the lower 48, it’s easy to forget the kind of impact that the cold can have on your gear—and your health.

As I made this most recent trip to the Arctic, I found myself looking forward to the challenges brought on by the cold. That excitement was quickly tempered the second I left the plane as the brutal arctic wind ripped the warmth from my body. In the following days, the cold has led to countless problems with our gear and overall research. Adapting to these problems is something you have to be ready for.

The other night BJ Kirschhoffer and I suddenly encountered a number of these hurdles while using a Forward Looking Infrared Camera (FLIR) to locate polar bear dens. Within the span of a few minutes, our snow-coach, snow-machine, and electronics all suffered some fairly major damage. We were at the farthest point from our base camp. Had we not been properly prepared or trained, we might have been in for a long and dangerous trek back in -40 degree weather. Luckily, we kept our heads on straight and quickly and happily worked through the problems. Hell, we jumped those hurdles like we were in the Olympics!

I’ve previously described the kind of struggle scientists go through trying to find a white animal on a completely white background. Add to that the fact that our team is searching for denning polar bears buried under a meter of snow, and you start to realize how daunting such a task that can be. With a lot of research, the help of both modern technology and traditional methods, and a bit of luck, we will be able to locate the dens that we need in order to learn how to better protect female polar bears and their vulnerable young.

While we face some pretty unique challenges and potential hazards, the privilege to be in the Arctic studying such a charismatic species is something I really treasure. Not only are polar bears an ecologically significant predator, but they also have deep-rooted cultural importance for native populations as well as the world at large. The wonder, curiosity, and even fear that most people feel when viewing a polar bear is something that is unrivaled by most creatures, and in my mind is something that’s very primal and essential. What a shame it would be to lose such an icon of the animal world, and an emblem of humanity’s relationship with the wild.

More so than with many other threatened creatures, we all share a lot of the responsibility for the challenges that polar bears are facing. A changing climate is drastically altering the Arctic and is forcing countless animals to work much harder for resources that they need to survive. By making small and easy changes to reduce the amount of energy that you use on a daily basis, you can do your part to change the trend and maintain a healthy Arctic and healthy planet. Simple things like carpooling, cutting your energy use, and recycling can lead to drastic reductions of your personal carbon footprint, and can help make the world a colder place for the brand new polar bears cubs we are studying. And a colder place for polar bear cubs is a good thing!