‘This is a big deal’: BYU research team working to advance polar bear conservation | Panda Anku

A polar bear and its cubs cross the ice in Churchill, Canada. Students and researchers at Brigham Young University traded their usual mountainous terrain for the frozen Churchill tundra last November, where they spent six days studying polar bears to assess the feasibility of radar technology in tracking polar bears above ground. (Polar Bears International)

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PROVO – Students and researchers at Brigham Young University traded their usual mountainous terrain for the frozen tundra of Churchill, Canada last November, where they spent six days studying polar bears.

“If you want to see polar bears, go to Churchill,” said Terri Bateman, a mechanical engineering professor at BYU and the team’s capstone trainer.

The team’s goal was to evaluate the feasibility of radar technology in tracking polar bears above ground. If proven feasible, the team’s work would represent a crucial advance in the scientists’ ability to track polar bear mothers during the winter, when they hide and give birth to their cubs under thick snow cover.

This research is of great interest as polar bears depend on sea ice for their existence and are directly affected by climate change, which serves as a crucial indicator species.

To conduct this research, the team loaded into a tundra buggy — an all-terrain vehicle designed for navigating the arctic tundra — and scoured the landscape for polar bears. When they spotted one, they sent its GPS coordinates to a helicopter overhead.

“Polar bears have become a symbol of climate change, and biologists have pieced together a chilling story about the future of these bears,” said Tom Smith, a wildlife research biologist at BYU.

In addition to his role at BYU, Smith serves on the advisory board of Capstone Team sponsor Polar Bears International, a Churchill-based group dedicated to ensuring the survival of polar bears in the Arctic.

With the polar bears’ coordinates recorded, the Capstone team was then able to try synthetic aperture radar – a new technology to see if it would be useful in identifying bear dens.

“The way the system works is that if there weren’t any bears, you would probably use an image as a basis,” Smith said.

Typically, conventional infrared radar falls short because polar bears are so well insulated by the snowpack that makes up their dens that their heat cannot penetrate the snowpack.

“If you fly over in the winter when it’s snowy, because the snow is transparent to radar, then the computer can compare the two images and identify new bright spots, which are then likely to be polar bears,” Smith said.

By identifying where polar bears nest, the Capstone team supports conservation efforts to protect endangered species.

“These bears are increasingly settling on the Arctic coast because of lack of sea ice, unstable ice, thinner ice — all these issues,” Smith said. “That’s unusual. Most polar bears live on sea ice, but we’re seeing a clear shift away from sea ice toward the coasts.”

It turns out, Smith said, that the surge in polar bears living on land has coincided with increased pressure on the oil reserves that reside in the places where they live.

“In order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the oil companies are held accountable for not interfering with them; and to do that, you speak of a white bear in a very barren, white landscape — it’s very difficult to find them,” Smith said. “So this tool will potentially help oil companies avoid any kind of disruption by knowing exactly where they are. … That’s a big deal.”

Despite all the positive groundwork the Capstone team has laid, Bateman said they still have room to build on the work that’s been done going forward.

“We want to go to other places where bears are in burrows and see if we can find those burrows,” Bateman said. “We could see polar bears on the ground. They haven’t been in caves, have they? So can we see them in their caves? That’s the next step.”

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Logan Stefanich is a reporter for KSL.com covering the communities, education, economy and military of southern Utah.

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