Polarsteam during a research expedition in 2015. Mario Hoppmann photo.
Sir John Franklin and a few other early Arctic explorers would have been shocked at this announcement. Scientists are organizing one of the biggest research expeditions ever planned and the challenge is somewhat unconventional. Tentatively scheduled to sail in the summer of 2019, the 120 meter research vessel Polarsteam will spend a year drifting across the North Pole locked in sea ice. During the drift the crew of researchers from 50 institutions and 14 countries will try and discover trends leading to the dramatic climate changes we have been experiencing recently.
Camps will be set up on the ice surface and measurements and analysis data from expeditions will be taken in places not previously possible.
“The decline of Arctic sea ice is much faster than the climate models can reproduce and we need better climate models to make better predictions for the future,” said MOSAiC expedition co-leader Professor Markus Rex, at a recent American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) meeting. “There is a potential that in a few decades the Arctic will be ice-free in summer. That would be a different world and we need to know about that in advance; we need to know is that going to happen or will that not happen?”
Arctic research sailing ship Fram in 1894.
There was one 19th century expedition that attempted this same lofty goal of drifting across the north Pole. In 1893, the Fram, lead by Norwegian explorer Fridtjo Nansen, attempted to “naturally” drift across the pole while locked in sea ice. Nansen armed with a generous budget raised by the Christiana Geographical Society as well as a personal contribution from King Oscar of Norway commissioned construction of a stout ship designed with a rounded hull to resist the crushing affects of the ice pack. Nansen left the ship after nearly a year and attempted to reach the North Pole on foot with another crew member. The story ends well and will,be covered in a subsequent post.
The Polarsteam will have no risk being trapped in ice as the technology of the day allows fro a sturdy hull unable to be crushed by the pressure of the Arctic ice. Polar bears will be the only danger for researchers on the ice and armed alert guards will be stationed at each camp along the journey.
The total cost of the German expedition is expected to cost $67 million to form a full view of the polar ice cap through the utilization of the most modern technology. Partner institutions from China, UK, Russia and the United States,will all take part in the endeavor.
A 2016 Scientific Working Group report on two Arctic sub – populations was released last week and appeared to confirm what local Inuit have been seeing over many years. Polar bear populations in Baffin Bay and Kane Basin are considered stable and not declining as Polar Bear Specialist Group scientists previously claimed.
The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group had previously designated the two sub – populations to be in decline mostly as a result of over – hunting. The same regions were assessed by Environment Canada in 2014 and termed ‘data deficient” for Kane Basin and ‘likely declining’ for Baffin Bay.
The new report suggests the global population estimate should be adjusted to the plus side and the 2015 IUCN Red List also be revised. Currently the only sub – population to hold the ‘likely declining’ label is the Southern Beaufort region. With the new data at hand the global population size should rise from 22,000-31,000 (as designated by 2015 IUCN Red List) to 22,633-32,257 polar bears worldwide. This estimate is not including the surprising 42% increase in the Svalbard area of the Barents Sea sub – population. In 2015 975 polar bears were counted in that region nearly 300 more than the 685 counted in 2004.
Polar bears on the run to safety. Jeff Klofft photo
In the wake of continuous dark news regarding Arctic ice decline, this news, at very least, is encouraging from a species perspective. With action and continued conservation efforts from groups such as World Wildlife Fund, polar bears and the Arctic can be protected well into the future.
The Northwest Passage is becoming newsworthy as a possible Arctic trade route. Fednav photo.
In April China encouraged shippers in country to use the Northwest Passage for trade routes around the world. The problem is there is dispute over the newly, somewhat accessible, Arctic route as to whether it’s an international waterway or under Canadian jurisdiction.
The Northwest Passage is roughly 40 percent shorter than the Panama Canal route, and even though there will be adverse affects on environment and wildlife species, the shorter passage will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1,300 tons. Russia’s Northern Sea Route has actually drawn more attention since it is usually more navigable than the Northwest Passage, which,often is still impassable throughout the summer. In 2009, only two ships completed the Northern Sea Route voyage as opposed to nearly 500 this year!
Eventually the passage will come to a broader discussion as to who controls rights to the region. However, at this point without enough surety that ships are able to pass with consistency, the issue is at a “simmer” level.
Traditionally, Ottawa and Washington have carried out talks trying to settle the jurisdiction dispute with Canada claiming all rights to the waterways that combine to form the Northwest Passage. Shippers, by this edict, need to comply with Canadian regulations when traversing the passage. The United States disagrees with their proposals but will comply in the meantime and notify Ottawa anytime a US firm plans to sail the waterway. Now with China entering the mix the scales could tip and a cause a flare – up in political negotiations.
The Northwest Passage in the Arctic will be used for future shipping to China. Canadian Geographic image.
China has vaguely outlined its’ own guidelines to sailing the Northwest Passage and announce that it wants more ships utilizing the trade route. In not so many words the country is asserting its position on Canada’s claim.
However, China may just be putting the cart in front of the horse by asserting the trade route preference for the firms that might use the route. COSCO, a prodigious shipper has deemed the northern route too dangerous to attempt on a regular basis.
For now the Panama and Suez Canals still remains the choice for most shipping companies. Posturing is in place by these interested countries for the future and at some point the route will become viable. While weather, year – round ice and challenging navigation conditions are aspects that Ottawa cannot alter, infrastructure and updated mapping can be improved. It seems that regardless of current day usability, the groundwork is being laid for future passage of the mythical region.
Barrow Observatory, an Arctic Circle research station run by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is normally a very cold place with snow lasting well into the summer months. This year is different according to researchers as snow has begun to melt a good month prior to the normal thaw time. It appears the dynamic Arctic summer is starting earlier in the far north.
Barrow Observatory run by NOAA in the Arctic Circle. NOAA photo.
The observatory, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is seeing the earliest snow melt in nearly 80 years. David Douglas, a U. S. Geological Survey research biologist stated the area looks like “June or early July right now.” May 13 marked the beginning of the snow melting this year.
The snow melt at Barrow Observatory follows one of the warmest Alaska winters on record. Temperatures were over 11 degrees above average according to NOAA. Douglas emphasizes the melting shows how the Arctic’s ice coverage has become quite fragile and forecasts record low sea ice for in the Arctic for 2016.
“Polar bears are having to make their decisions about how to move and where to go on thinner ice pack that’s mostly first-year ice,” Douglas said.
A polar bear searching for sufficient seal – hunting ice in the Arctic. Kyriaksos Kaziras photo.
These ominous forecasts have been surfacing for years and now we are seeing harbingers of these prophesies in physical evidence all over the world and especially in the high Arctic.
Canadian Arctic polar bears are swimming longer distances to find suitable ice in which to hunt seals and rear their young. Scientists are deeply concerned that such swims of several days duration, particularly in the Beaufort Sea, are the cause of population decline in the Arctic.
Canadian researchers tracked 58 adult female polar bears as well as 18 young male and female bears between 2007 and 2012 in the Beaufort Sea. Another group of 59 adult females in the Hudson Bay region were tracked as well. Since adult males typically remove their collars and their larger neck size generally makes it difficult to attach the collars, only the females were tracked.
Polar bears are swimming longer distances especially in the Beaufort Sea. Andrew Derocher photo.
Overall, the Hudson Bay polar bears, those including the Churchill population, rarely made long-distance swims.
However, in the Beaufort Sea, during times when sea ice dissipates, many of the polar bears made at least one swim of 50 km or more while 69 per cent did so in 2012, a record low year for ice coverage.
“More and more animals in the population are being caught in places that they just can’t stay – so the ice that they’re on is breaking up, the floes are too small, and they have to make longer distance movements to try to find better habitat,” said Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta biologist highly involved in the study.
Researchers identified a total of 115 long-distance swims during the study, 100 of them in the Beaufort Sea, with the average distance being 92 km or thew equivalent of 3.4 days. Polar bears average swimming speed is around two km/hour. The bears have very little rest while swimming, rarely stopping and since swimming burns calories at a higher rate than walking, body fat needed for Arctic survival burns away rapidly. One female was tracked on a nine – day, 687 km swim lost her cub on the journey while also dropping 22 per cent of her weight.
Polar bear sow and cub swimming in the Hudson Bay. John Lehmann photo.
The polar bear population in the Beaufort Sea has fallen more than 50 per cent in the past 10 years, according to Derocher. The long – distance swimming could have a huge bearing on this data. “So it is a concern that this is probably one of the factors associated with the population decline,” he said.
However, the study found no direct evidence that swimming contributes to the population decline. The polar bears tracked survived all the swims recorded in the study. Researchers were unable to track survival rates of cubs whom may have been with them other than the one extended swim referred to above. Due to hypothermia exposure to cubs, mothers with young seemed to make fewer marathon swims the researchers noted.
“Polar bears are well adapted to swimming,” Derocher said, “but of course, not all polar bears are created equal when it comes to the ability to swim.” Younger bears do not have the insulating body fat nor the stamina for prolonged water journeys.
Until the 1980’s Sea ice in the Beaufort Sea always melted close to shore as summer arrived. With the ice edge visible from land, polar bears utilize that edge during migration as a way to manage their hunting grounds. As the Arctic warms and the summer sea ice edge extends farther and farther north, polar bears are forced to swim long expanses to find stable ice.
Polar bears will need to find alternate food sources in order to survive. Andrew Derocher photo.
The dynamic Hudson Bay polar bear population has adapted to ice completely melting in summertime by spending long periods of time on land and in the shallows. Reliant on other food sources, polar bears in this region, including Churchill, have adapted somewhat and continue to develop ways to augment their winter food sources. Beluga whales, berries, bird – eggs and land seal – kills are more common food sources these days for the animals.
Polar bear and ravens scavenge a seal kill carcass on land in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Brad Josephs photo.
Despite Scientists previous predictions that polar bears would need to swim farther as climate change causes chaos with Arctic sea ice, this was the first study showing enough data to actually show the correlation.
A retired RCMP, recently convicted and sentenced of illegally smuggling narwhal tusks into the United States from Canada, has been extradited to the U.S. on related money-laundering charges in Maine. A New Jersey man, Andrew Zarauskas has also was convicted in 2014 and is currently serving time in prison. Jay Conrad from Tennessee awaits trial.
Narwhals in the Arctic. National Institute of Standards and Technology via Wikimedia Commons photo.
Gregory Logan, 58, of Woodmans Point, N.B., is being held in custody pending his trial date of May 3 in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Maine
Charges include smuggling of 250 narwhal tusks with a value of over two million US dollars into the United States by concealing them in false compartments in his vehicle. Prosecution asserts that Logan had been transporting tusks across the border since 2000 when he was still employed by the RCMP. He allegedly brokered the tusks to private collectors and then transferred the funds outside the US.
Narwhal tusks that were evidence in the trial of Andrew J. Zarauskas. Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN photo.
Logan, whom was fined $385,000 and four months house arrest under an eight month conditional sentence, faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 US with the money laundering charges in the states.
“As this case shows, wildlife trafficking can involve millions in illegal transactions, compounding the damage it does to the wealth and diversity of life on our planet,” Assistant Attorney General John Cruden, of the Justice Department’s environment and natural resource’s division, said in a statement. By pursuing the criminal financial transactions that flow from trafficking, we are making [it] a less attractive and more costly enterprise.”
Narwhals live year-round in the Arctic and are a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Law prohibits importing narwhals, or any of their parts, into the United States, barring a special permit, under the Marine Mammal protection Act. Spiraled tusks, found predominately in males are actually a tooth protruding through the upper jaw, reach up to ten feet and can fetch nearly $100 an inch on the black market.
Co – conspirators Andrew Zarauskas, of Union, New Jersey,has already been convicted and sentenced to nearly three years in prison while Jay Conrad, of Lakeland, Tennessee, has plead guilty and awaits sentencing.
Andrew J. Zarauskas of Union, N.J. (left) was convicted of smuggling narwhal tusks into the US from Canada. Gabor Degre | BDN photo.
Evidence at trial showed Zarauskas, 61, doubled his money on the $85,000 he paid Logan between 2002 and 2008 for approximately 33 tusks. What was particularly egregious about Zarauskas’ case was that he was working as a confidential informer for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a separate case that did not involve narwhal tusk smuggling.