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Scientists Use Satellites to Track Polar Bears

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Studying polar bears in the Arctic can be difficult. Scientists rely on boats, helicopters, and low flying planes, which can’t access many remote regions where polar bears live.

An adult female polar bear and her two cubs travel across the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean north of the Alaska coast (photo courtesy of US Geological Survey).

An adult female polar bear and her two cubs travel across the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean north of the Alaska coast (photo courtesy of US Geological Survey).

The U.S. Geological Survey, though, recently started tracking polar bears from space, using high resolution satellites. “The advantage that we see for the satellite imagery is we don’t have to put people in helicopters and fly them over the sea ice,” says Todd Atwood, research leader for the USGS Polar Bear Research Program. “It’s [also] completely non-invasive to polar bears.”

Atwood is currently analyzing satellite images from Rowley Island in Nunavut, Canada, where polar bears amass in large numbers during the summer. Researchers have used the images to complete a bear count on the island, which seems to be accurate. As an end goal, Atwood hopes to better understand how the threatened animal is responding to climate change.

The new tracking method could also produce information about a predator that’s not very well understood. “We lack sufficient data, we lack sufficient information for nearly half of the polar bears range,” says Geoff York, director of conservation for polar bears international. “I think one thing we need to do straight away is fill in those blank spots on the map.”

York and other researchers are particularly eager to use satellites to study the predator in the arctic sea ice: an environment that’s rapidly changing.  But spotting white bears in a sea of snow has its challenges. “It’s a great target to shoot for, but I don’t think the technology is there yet,” York explains. “You’re looking for white on white, and that’s next to impossible.”

More immediately, USGS researchers plan to use polar-bear spotting satellites in coastal Alaska, and other parts of the Arctic.

 

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