Few people would consider polar bears to be tech-savvy creatures. But that hasn’t stopped a years-long program involving the majestic Arctic animals and scientists who have been relying on them for important data. The unusual ‘pen pal program’ is helping scientists get a better understanding on what is happening in the Arctic and how it’s affecting not only polar bears, but also human residents and other wildlife in the highly sensitive region.
Polar bears are sending important messages and data to scientists that could help save their lives.
Ok, so polar bears aren’t actually pulling up to a computer and typing up their emails full of sensitive information. However, scientists are receiving daily emails from at least 70 polar bears fitted with tracking collars which continuously logs movement. Every morning, Jon Aars, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute, receives a batch of emails from several female polar bears in the High Arctic, checking in and letting him know where they are. “It’s always a nice way to start the day,” he told CNN.
Along with the tracking collar, the tracking collar also weighs bears and takes samples to monitor their health and diet, as well as testing for evidence of pollutants. The collar can also record body temperature, which can tell scientists if a bear has moved inside a den – an indication the animal is going to give birth.
The data being collected from these bears is helping model climate change in one of the world’s most vulnerable regions.
Polar bears are the proverbial canary in a frigid coal mine. As the Earth’s climate warms, it’s melting vast amounts of sea ice and causing ocean temperatures to rise, which is having a profound impact on the environment. Although there’s limited evidence that less sea ice is actually providing short-term benefits to polar bears, it’s having a major impact on seals – polar bear’s main prey – who rely on sea ice. As a result, many of the Arctic’s animals are being forced to move with the times.
“Because conditions change, polar bears will use more time on land and look for different options,” he explains. “They hunt reindeer, they will take more birds and eggs. We have seen that bears are in different areas than they used to be – so much further north, Aars explained to CNN.
Data from movement has been very important to understand how they react and how they might respond to climate change. Bears are now swimming as far as 200 kilometers (124 miles) to reach an island den, he adds, something they did not need to do 20 years ago.
“Polar bears are optimistic animals,” Aars says. “It seems that they are quite resistant, and they are doing quite well despite the fact that they’ve lost a lot of their habitat.” Despite the odds, Svalbard’s polar bear numbers do not appear to have decreased in the last 20 years, he tells CNN.
That may not always be the case, though. According to NASA, summer ice in the Arctic is shrinking by more than 13% each decade, and this year the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported the second lowest levels of summer sea ice ever recorded. The 14 lowest levels of sea ice have all occurred in the past 14 years, according the NSIDC.
Svalbard is a place unlike any other on Earth.
Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago north of the mainland, is an ideal place to study a group of the world’s estimated 26,000 remaining polar bears. “There are about 300 living in Svalbard year-round,” Aars told CNN, “if you fly for one hour, most of the time you find one.”
If you’ve always wanted a taste of this Nordic joie de vivre, you’re in luck: While there are a few places around the world that make moving there relatively easy for US citizens, none make it as simple as Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago that allows anyone from anywhere to move there indefinitely, visa-free. Meaning you too could have your own polar bear pen pal. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea, since Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland have all placed among the top 10 places to live in each of the past five editions of the World Happiness Report.
And a polar bear siting is pretty much guaranteed. The human population is so small that polar bears outnumber people: The islands are home to about 3,000 polar bears, according to Visit Svalbard. And for a community of just 2,200 people it has plenty of amenities: shops, museums, art galleries, bars, restaurants, a library, and a cinema. But despite it’s small population, there are residents from more than 50 countries living in the community.
So not only is Svalbard an interesting (and apparently easy) place to call home, it’s also helping scientists plan for the future of one of the world’s most beloved yet endangered animals.