The state of polar bears in Greenland  | Polarjournal
An emblematic animal of the Far North, the polar bear is well present in Greenland. Photo: Michael Wenger

On the occasion of International Polar Bear Day, PolarJournal takes stock of the king of the Arctic in Greenland. To learn more about the state of scientific research, consideration of Indigenous knowledge and scientific discoveries, we interviewed Fernando Ugarte from Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

What is the state of research on polar bears? How has it evolved over the last 20 years?

Some of the basic things we do are practically the same as since the 1990’s actually. Capturing bears, marking them, recapturing them again to see if they’re still the same individuals, using collars with satellite and GPS. The fact it hasn’t changed much is a good thing as we can compare our data with those collected thirty years ago. 

Some things are more practical and smart now. Satellite transmitters we put on the bears have become smaller, they last longer and they’re more accurate. We can get all the data – their temperature or their activities like hunting, resting, eating, sleeping or dying – from their collars. As their collars store all those data, we know if they have been on land, in water, hunting seals. 

Genetic analyses have also improved. Before, in order to know how many bears there were, we had to catch them, tattoo their lips or put ear tags. And then the next time we would catch a bear, we had to see if they were marked, if they were the same individuals. Now, we don’t need to do that anymore. We can shoot a dart on them, take a little skin and have genetics data. 

In the future, we’re probably going to be able to collect snow from a polar bear footprint and know which tracks belong to which bear.

Fernando Ugarte is the Head of the Department of Birds and Mammals at Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. He has spent the last 20 years studying Greenland fauna with his team composed of specialists, such as Kristin Laidre from the University of Washington. Photo: Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

How has climate change influenced research on polar bear? 

Basically, all the research now have to take climate change in consideration. If there was no climate change, most of our studies will be more focused on how polar bears use their habitat, where they hunt, what are the important areas, as if these aspects did not change. But now, with the climate change issue, we need to know how polar bears are adapting to it. There are many different populations of polar bears and each one has its own ice conditions, population size and hunting pressure. 

Besides, we would like to have some understanding of what will happen in the future. But it’s complicated as we don’t really know how the climate will be in five, ten or fifty years. The more you go into the future, the more unsure the models are. Depending on how human emissions will be and if we follow or not Paris Agreements, there would be several degrees difference in temperature and a lot less sea ice, especially if we don’t follow the agreements. 

In an Arctic Business Journal article, published in 2018, you were saying that the polar bears won’t go extinct in 2100 despite what has been reported in the media many times. Why ?

There are two studies I know on that subject. Maybe they both need to be updated. But the first one is IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) projections that say polar bear numbers will go down by 30% in 2050 compared to their population in 2015. This is based on the best analysis I know. 

There is another paper, published in 2020, where it said that in 2100, and unless we drastically reduce our emissions, there will only be polar bears left in small areas such as North Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Not even in that paper, they stated that polar bears will go extinct. The probability is that bears will see their living areas pushed more into the northmost areas.

So polar bears populations will decrease but not disappear?

Indeed. Winter sea ice will still be forming and polar bears will still be wandering in the Arctic. The problem will be the absence of sea ice in summer. Polar bears will have to have a longer and longer time not eating. That will make it impossible for them to live in as many places as where they live now. 

But I think in the north most areas of the Arctic, there still will be enough sea ice for polar bears. Or in places where there will still be an ice cap calving into the sea in fjord.

As it is the case for the southeast Greenland subpopulation ?

Yes, that population made us realize that they can still live where there is not much sea ice, but with glacier ice. 

Are you still studying this subpopulation ?

Yes, we just got a funding for the start of a three year study. There are a few hundred individuals but we don’t know how many they are precisely. We’re preparing to go there so we can capture some bears next year, use some satellites data, do DNA biopsies and study their feeding. We should have a precise number of individuals by 2028. Also, we will have an idea on how they have changed since 2015, when we started studying them. These are very interesting animals, we need to keep an eye on them.  

A polar bear from the southeast Greenland subpopulation. Photo: Fernando Ugarte (courtesy of the author)

It looks like we still have a lot to learn and discover about this subpopulation…

Yes, and fortunately, it’s not the only population that we have. We will probably have to move back to Northwest Greenland, in Baffin Bay and Kane Basin. We have worked a lot on them from 2009 to 2016 and we need to go back to them. 

The Baffin Bay population, which is a large population, is still healthy. But it’s showing signs of stress compared to the 1990’s. Bears are doing longer swims, covering longer distances and they’re showing worse physical conditions. They’re thinner now when they used to be fat. The consequence of that is that females don’t have two or three cubs at time. They tend to have only one baby or no baby at all. Besides, they spend more time on land during the summer.

In the far north of West Greenland, there is the Kane Basin population. It’s very small but they’re doing very well. They live in an environment where the ice was previously very thick all year round, even too thick for seals to make their breathing holes and live. Now, most of the ice melts in the summer and the seasonal ice is more suitable for seals, and polar bears. 

What are the different populations of polar bears in Greenland ? How many populations have you identified ?

Let’s start clockwise from Nuuk in southwest Greenland, where I am:

Davis Strait subpopulation: It’s a large subpopulation (around 2 000 individuals), mainly coming with the sea ice during winter from Canada. 

Baffin Bay:  When the ice melts in summer, most of the subpopulation goes to Canada. A part of them stay on Melville Bay. 

Kane Basin: It’s a little subpopulation that is doing well. They move also between Canada and Greenland.

Arctic Basin: They’re in the north of Greenland, near the North Pole. Polar bears from different subpopulations probably mix there.

East Greenland subpopulation: We are about to find out how many they are, as we made a survey last year. It’s a huge area with lots of polar bears and lots of sea ice. 

Southeast Greenland: It’s a small sub population that mixes very little with other subpopulations. 

Polar bears usually move a lot. We call them subpopulations and not populations, because they move over thousands of kilometres. Except for this Southeast Greenland subpopulation as the bears move mainly from one fjord to the next, over the mountains. Sometimes they go on sea ice offshore, where they risk drifting to south Greenland or the Atlantic Ocean, but they usually swim back to their fjords before drifting too far. They must have enough food there so they don’t need to move much.

About scientists working with Indigenous populations, which is a topic that is talked a lot now. Does your institute work with local populations and how? 

We do it on different levels and at different stages of the research. Every time we start an assessment in an area, we begin with a big interview. We contact the hunters organisation and look at the hunting statistics to make sure we talk with the most experienced polar bear hunters. The most skilled hunters are very important to their communities, as they bring food and keep the culture alive. But they’re also fauna specialists. They have a lot of knowledge and experience about where the polar bears are and how they’re changing. 

We conduct interviews and then we make reports and plan how we’re going to make our study. Are we going to make an aerial survey or a mark-recapture survey? Whenever we can, we take a person from the community in the study area with us in the helicopter or airplane.

Besides, every time a hunter catches a bear, they must fill a form about the hunt and where it was located. They need to send us this form with a small tooth located behind the canine and a tissue samples, usually taken on the tip of the animal’s tongue, which allow us to collect DNA sample. The small tooth will allow us to find out how old the bear was. 

We are now doing interviews with the south Greenlandic farmers about conflicts with polar bears. Apparently, the animals that get shot in this area are mostly from East Greenland. They get to the south carried by the currents and end up in the south where there are many farms. We want to study the dynamic between polar bears and sheep farmers in. It’s, I think, a very interesting story.

Interview by Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

More on the subject

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
error: Content is protected !!
Share This