Tracking polar bears in the Beaufort Sea – May 2014 map and USGS video footage

Here is the May 2014 follow-up to my post on the July 2013 track map for female polar bears being followed by satellite in the Beaufort Sea by the US Geological Survey (USGS) – “Ten out of ten polar bears being tracked this summer in the Beaufort Sea are on the ice.”

See that post for methods and other background on this topic, and some track maps from 2012 (also available at the USGS website here).

The USGS track map May 2014 is copied below (Fig. 1).

Compare this to April’s map (Fig. 2) – the 24 bears from April are down to 20 and the bears are spreading out a bit from the area on the central Alaskan coast where they were originally tagged. Fifteen of these bears have satellite collar transmitters [and therefore are females] and 5 of these bears have glue-on satellite transmitters [either males or subadult animals].

Some comments on the polar bear video cam footage released June 6 by USGS and stories on it run by the media follow.

Figure 1. From original USGS caption: “Movements of 20 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of May, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 and 2014 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. Fifteen of these bears have satellite collar transmitters and 5 of these bears have glue-on satellite transmitters. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with MODIS imagery from 19 May, 2014. Click to enlarge. (Original image here).

Figure 1. From original USGS caption: “Movements of 20 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of May, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 and 2014 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. Fifteen of these bears have satellite collar transmitters and 5 of these bears have glue-on satellite transmitters. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with MODIS imagery from 19 May, 2014. Click to enlarge. (Original image here).

April map below (Fig. 2), for comparison (see previous post here), original map file here.

From original caption: “Movements of 24 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of April, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 and 2014 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. Seventeen of these bears have satellite collar transmitters and 7 of these bears have glue-on satellite transmitters. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with MODIS imagery from 26 April, 2014.”  Click to enlarge. Original image here.

From original caption: “Movements of 24 satellite-tagged polar bears for the month of April, 2014. Polar bears were tagged in 2013 and 2014 on the spring-time sea ice of the southern Beaufort Sea. Seventeen of these bears have satellite collar transmitters and 7 of these bears have glue-on satellite transmitters. Polar bear satellite telemetry data are shown with MODIS imagery from 26 April, 2014.” Click to enlarge. Original image here.

It would have been nice to know which of the above bears (if any) was wearing the “Point of View” (POV) camera that the video footage recently released by USGS June 6, 2014, see stories below, with links to the video. [USGS press release here]

The story I found first is brief, thankfully (via Alaska Dispatch):

“Scientists release camera footage with a polar bear point-of-view: Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey have released video footage taken from cameras attached to wild polar bears in Northern Alaska. The USGS put cameras on four female polar bears they found on Beaufort Sea ice, north of Prudhoe Bay, in April. …  The USGS said it hopes to use the video, as part of the agency’s Changing Arctic Ecosystems initiative, to better understand how melting sea ice is affecting the bears by matching the video showing their specific activities with satellite global positioning data.”

However, the story run by CTV (by Dan Joling, The Associated Press) includes an outrageous photo caption that states: More than two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will be killed off by 2050 – the species completely gone from Alaska – because of thinning sea ice from global warming in the Arctic, government scientists forecast Friday.” [my bold]

[Seriously? Not “might” but “will be killed off”…and extirpated from Alaska, no question about it. Computer model predictions are now absolute prophesies!]

The story itself goes on:

“The cameras are part of a study to find out how polar bears, listed as a threatened species, are responding to sea ice loss from global warming. Scientists in the Beaufort are generally limited to about six weeks of field work each spring, between the time it’s light enough to work and before ice begins to break up.

“It’s all information that we wouldn’t be able to get otherwise,” said Todd Atwood, research leader for the USGS Polar Bear Research Program, from his office in Anchorage.

The collars were attached in April and collected eight to 10 days later as a test run of how they eventually will be deployed for longer periods.

Cameras were attached to two bears in 2013, but the batteries could not handle Arctic temperatures, Atwood said.

Redesigned collars were attached to four females that already were going to be captured for blood samples on a study of behaviour and energy expenditure led by USGS research biologist Anthony Pagano. The bears already carry collars with GPS recording data and accelerometers, an activity sensor that records whether a bear is resting, walking, swimming or hunting.”

Atwood said the 38 to 40 hours of video from the neck cameras have yielded surprises — such as the female bear and a male tussling with a seal carcass in what might be courting behaviour.

“The fact that they appear to be playing around with their food, we’re not sure what that means,” he said.

Other footage shows a bear pursuing a seal underwater. Polar bear hunting behaviour generally is thought to consist largely of waiting beside a breathing hole or collapsing lairs of ringed seals.

The female at one point drops a frozen seal carcass in seawater and scientists speculate she’s trying to thaw it out, Atwood said.” [my bold]

My comments – Interesting video but not quite as “astonishing” as some news reports have made it out to be. It required some labeled comments to make it understandable, since it would not really be clear to non-biologists what the bears were doing.

And I’m going to suggest that the notion that this bit of technology is going to help USGS biologists “better understand how melting sea ice is affecting the bears by matching the video showing their specific activities with satellite global positioning data” is a bit of wishful thinking.

Are they hoping to catch a bear dying on video, or having bad luck catching a seal, or falling through thin ice – all to be blamed on “melting ice” and global warming? It might give them useful PR footage (clearly it’s been useful already for that purpose, as shown by the CTV/Associated Press story), but scientifically useful video documenting global warming effects on the bears? Doubtful.

With no prior footage under different conditions with which to compare, at best such video would qualify as anecdotal information. And as I’ve said before (in relation to claims of increasing incidents of cannibalism), anecdotes will be of very little use to a scientific investigation of this kind – it won’t be evidence of anything.

[update – the Smithsonian Magazine (June 9) also ran a short story on this video footage, see it here]

Comments are closed.