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A team from the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Centre has discovered that by using lidar, a laser-based remote sensing technology, they can identify the winter dens of polar bears with a far greater success rate than previous methods were able to offer. The scientists involved speculate that their technology could identify as many as 95 percent of the bears’ fragile and crucial winter lodgings.
“A lot of oil and gas exploration happens in the winter – that's when bears are in their dens, rearing their young,” said Benjamin Jones, one of the scientists involved with the project.
During the winter, female polar bears dig large dens in which they give birth and raise their cubs throughout the winter months, the same months that are also prime time for oil explorers. The permafrost and ice roads are stable, allowing trucks and heavy equipment to venture into remote areas. Sometimes vehicles drive directly over dens and the noise can drive the mothers from their hiding places.
Cubs are generally born in January and are completely helpless, relying on the warmth of the mother and the protection of the den. The first few months of uninterrupted time in the den are vital for the cubs’ survival.
“Polar bears enter the maternal den in November and exit the den in late March or early April,” said George Durner, another scientist from the centre.
A closer look In the past, researchers used radar or high-resolution aerial photography to survey the Alaskan polar bear habitat. Potential dens were then confirmed by land surveys. But those techniques missed many prime denning areas, leaving the bears vulnerable. Lidar should allow oil firms and polar bears to more peacefully coexist, and Jones and Dunner hope that oil companies will now be able to use lasers to avoid intruding on bear habitats.
The new technique could also help monitor changes in the landscape – such as permafrost degradation – that may be caused by climate change. Climate change has already altered the bears' denning behaviors.
“Sea ice on the Beaufort and Chukchi seas is becoming thinner,” Durner said.
The thinner ice forces bears to den in locations where they are more likely to encounter humans and that the changes mean that the protection of the next generation of cubs is even more important for the species’ survival.
The study was presented by researchers working with the United States Geological Survey in partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
A petition has been created to thank Jones and Durner for their work in protecting polar bears, which are widely regarded as a symbol of the challenges facing the Arctic due to increased exploration as the result of climate change.
READ MORE: The abstract and a PDF of Jones and Durner's research is available here.