From a helicopter, it can be hard to spot a polar bear against the frozen tundra. So when the polar bear biologist Jon Aars heads out for his annual research trips, he scans the landscape for flashes of movement or subtle variations in color — the slightly yellowish hue of the bears’ fur set off against the white snow.
“Also, very often, you see the footprints before you see the bear,” Dr. Aars said. “And the bear is usually where the footprints stop.”
Dr. Aars is one in a long line of polar bear researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute, which has an outpost on Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago. Since 1987, the institute’s scientists have staged annual field trips into the icy wilderness to find and study Svalbard’s polar bears.
Over the decades, these research trips have shed light on the basic biology and ecology of the bears and, in recent years, helped scientists keep tabs on how the animals are coping with climate change. The rapid habitat changes are already affecting their behavior; with the sea ice retreating quickly, some of the bears now have to swim long distances in order to find places to den. But so far, the bears themselves still seem robust, Dr. Aars said.
The trips often take place in the spring, when female bears are emerging from their dens with new cubs and the sea ice is solid enough to support what can be dangerous research. To maximize the area of study — and the odds of finding bears — the scientists traverse the archipelago by helicopter. “And, of course, if you have a helicopter and land on the ice and it’s thin, you risk having an accident with the helicopter,” Dr. Aars said.
Once airborne, the team, which typically includes two biologists, a veterinarian, a helicopter pilot and a mechanic, begins scanning the landscape for bears. When the researchers spot one, they take aim from the air with a tranquilizer dart. If they hit their mark, it typically takes just a few minutes before the bear is flat on the ice.