Arctic sea ice and polar bears

How do you study an animal that can weigh up to 700 kilograms, and each year will walk thousands of kilometres over sea ice in the remote Canadian Arctic and never return to the same place twice? It is not easy, says graduate student Vicki Sahanatien, who

How do you study an animal that can weigh up to 700 kilograms, and each year will walk thousands of kilometres over sea ice in the remote Canadian Arctic and never return to the same place twice?

It is not easy, says graduate student Vicki Sahanatien, who is currently researching the movements of polar bears, and changes in sea ice in Foxe Basin, Nunavut.

Sahanatien, who moved to Whitehorse a few months ago to write her thesis, has spent the past four years on the subject.

In that time, she has employed the most modern research methods to track and monitor the world’s largest carnivores.

The bears are tagged and fitted with GPS collars that transmit location to satellites and allows monitoring of their movements.

“Otherwise, it’s impossible to follow them,” she says. Over the past four years Sahanatien has tagged and followed the movements of more than 60 bears.

Her research also incorporates traditional knowledge by interviewing Inuit hunters and elders about their observations of polar bear movements and sea ice habitat.

While monitoring the bears’ movements, Sahanatien has also spent time looking for signs of climate change on the region’s sea ice and how those changes may affect polar bear activities.

Sea ice is essential to polar bear survival. Polar bears primarily capture and feed on ring seals on the sea ice. Instead of chasing the seals in the water where they are very difficult to catch, the bears are clever about stalking their prey.

The bears find a seal breathing hole or lair on the sea ice – the seals must come up for air at regular intervals – and they wait.

Sahanatien has been analyzing satellite data on sea ice dating back to 1979. Data from the past 30 years shows changes in the ice, especially in the spring and fall.

The ice is freezing later and thawing earlier, leaving polar bears less time to use the sea ice to find food.

One of the objectives of Sahanatien’s research is to model how changes in climate and sea ice may affect the polar bear of Foxe Basin.

Sahanatien’s work is done in collaboration with the government of Nunavut, Parks Canada and the University of Alberta.

She became interested in polar bear ecology while working in Nunavut with Parks Canada on polar bear and human public safety programs. While there, Sahanatien saw there was a gap in information on polar bears, sea ice and climate change in the mid Arctic region of Foxe Basin.

She plans to finish her studies over the next year, and then pass the torch on to other graduate students.

In her view there isn’t anywhere in Canada that is more exciting than the Arctic for research.

“It is possible to explore little known landscapes, new ideas, and discover alternative ways of understanding,” she says.

“The Arctic has the most stunning landscapes in the world.”

On Wednesday, February 24, Sahanatien will give a presentation on her polar bear and sea ice research at the MacBride Museum of Yukon History.

It will be the fourth in a series of five lectures on climate change delivered in partnership with the Northern Climate ExChange and Yukon College.

On Wednesday, February 17, environmental historian Karine Grenier will present a lecture on her research into the environmental stresses that affected Whitehorse from the 1930s to 2010.

And, on Wednesday, March 3, Meghan Larivee will wrap up the lecture series with her presentation on adaptation and plasticity in Kluane red squirrels.

All talks are free and they take place at the MacBride Museum, at 1124 First Avenue in downtown Whitehorse.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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