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Watch Explorers Track Struggling Polar Bears Across Russian Arctic

Russia may contain more polar bears than any other country, but scientists are only beginning to understand them—while racing against melting ice that threatens their existence.

See How They Track Polar Bears in Russia

The Russian biologists were already on their third round of vodka shots over a dinner of canned reindeer meat, buckwheat, and pickles when a neighbor ran in and shouted, “bear!”

Old Soviet forks clattered against plates as the group of scientists all stood at the same time and rushed out of the tiny kitchen in the Sea View, a grandly named hotel in the almost completely abandoned town of Amderma on the shore of the Kara Sea. “The polar bear is by the school!” the young woman yelled again, as the men got dressed in a chaotic jumble of boots, gloves, coats, and hats.

Sergey Naidenko and Yevgeny Ivanov ran into their room and grabbed a lightweight German gas rifle. Yevgeny tucked a number of tranquilizer darts into his down jacket—then everyone ran out into the gloom of a spring evening in the Russian Arctic.

Outside, Sergey grabbed the darts from Yevgeny, jumped on a snowmobile behind a local Nenets hunter with a rifle slung over his shoulder, and went tearing off across the hardened snow in the direction the bear had run. The rest of the group navigated down to the frozen seashore through deep snow hiding mountains of rusted junk left by the Soviet Union’s second largest Arctic air base.

The neighbor climbed up onto a dilapidated fuel tank, put one half of a pair of broken binoculars to her eye, and scanned the ice. Far in the distance, the bear ran across the horizon—then disappeared against the white. Ten minutes later, Sergey and the man returned. No luck.

Polar bears—along with lions, elephants, giant pandas, humpback whales, and others—are often known as “charismatic megafauna.” These are the big animals that help conservation organizations raise money. The internet is built on pictures of their young. In recent years, the profile of polar bears has risen even more as the threat of global warming has grown more tangible—the species is now the canary in the coal mine for climate change. But, in Russia, where possibly half the population of the world’s polar bears live—almost nothing is known about them.

Except for the tips of their ranges near Norway and Alaska, and some Youtube videos posted by Russian oil workers, the status and habits of Russian polar bears is largely a void. This expedition of Russian researchers hoped to begin to change that, but, as usual, they were running out of time and money. And now the one bear they had seen had disappeared out on the ice. (Learn more about climate change for kids.)

Counting Russia’s Bears?

“If you want to point at a single black hole in our knowledge of polar bears,” says Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, “clearly it is the Russian Arctic.”

Ilya Mordvintsev, head of the expedition and a biologist at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow, agrees. “For the Kara Sea, we have zero information. We do not know the population. We do not know the number of bears here. For us it is a blank.”

For the poster boy of global warming, next to nothing is known in Russia. “It's really important to highlight that the information is missing and how important it is to our understanding of all polar bears in the Arctic,” says Karyn Rode, a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center. “The more detailed the information we can get from multiple parts of the polar bear’s range—that’s going to really help us better fine tune our assessment of how they’re dealing and going to deal with sea ice loss.” (See how ice is disappearing.)

The last time polar bears were regularly surveyed in the Russian Arctic was during the Soviet Union, when crews on ice breakers cutting paths for cargo ships would count the bears they encountered. When the USSR collapsed, this data was lost, says Mordvintsev. Occasionally, large scale, but not in depth aerial surveys were carried out.

Ironically, a Soviet hunting ban is partly responsible. Because penalties were severe, bears were almost never shot. But this also meant authorities saw no need for a census, which is typically used to determine the number of bears that can legally be killed in a year.

Only in 2010 did scientists from Mordvintsev’s institute begin studies again. But to this day they lack government funding. While studies and censuses in the U.S., Canada, and Norway often involve hundreds of hours of helicopter and plane time, this Russian team had only three days of flight time in a Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter.

What is more, while the Chukchi Sea adjacent to Alaska and the Barents Sea north of Norway have seen some studies in collaboration with foreign scientists, above Siberia, only a small corner of the 358,000 square miles of the Kara Sea has been surveyed, while the 270,000 square miles of the Laptev Sea have never been surveyed. “Nothing is known at all,” says Mordvintsev.

And time is running out to learn about the Russian bears. At the end of March, NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported a record low of just 5.57 million square miles of sea ice covering the Arctic, down for a third straight year in a row. “I have been looking at Arctic weather patterns for 35 years and have never seen anything close to what we’ve experienced these past two winters,” said NSIDC director Mark Serreze.

Polar bears hunt from sea ice. Without it, “they are forced to practically starve,” says Mordvintsev.

Polar Bear Mom Fights Back

New Threats to Polar Bears?

Speeding this situation along is Russia’s renewed oil and gas speculation and military expansion—all heralded at the just-completed International Arctic Forum in Russia. The theme this year was “Man in the Arctic.” On March 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Franz Josef Land, which has been targeted for a clean up of an estimated 90,000 tons of Soviet trash in an effort to build a positive narrative. Today, much of the research on big animals in the Russian Arctic is being done by the oil industry. But, so far, they are not sharing what they are learning. “We do not know this information,” says Mordvintsev. “This is a big problem.”

Furthermore, as sea ice melts faster and faster, bears are being driven on shore, where they come into conflict with people. Although the bears’ appearance in Amderma ended without incident, the town, the site of a former gulag prison, is no stranger to their visits. The Russian researchers believe that this trend will increase as bears move in search of food.

Indeed, the goal of their helicopter mission was to tranquilize female bears, collar them and take DNA samples so their movements could be tracked. Mordvintsev has data from one bear they collared last year, but he needs more in order to be able to determine if bears are coming into or leaving the Kara Sea region.

But, with the state of the ice in the region deteriorating so quickly—the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme believes the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of sea ice in summer as early as the late 2030s—Amstrup believes that, while research in the Russian Arctic is important, we already know what we need to know about polar bear habits and habitat in order to save them from extinction. “Research questions are important at the detail level but not important at the ultimate level,” he says. “We can't build a fence to protect sea ice habitat from rising temperatures.”

The last day of the expedition, funding for the project only allowed a morning flight. Around nine, the men gathered in front of the hotel and boarded a giant truck—the town’s “bus”—to the airport. With sinking hopes, they loaded their equipment in the helicopter, told the pilots to find the tracks of the bear they had seen the evening before, and took off.

Zigzagging along the coast for the next three hours, they saw beluga wales, ringed seals at their holes, reindeer, arctic hares, and hundreds of sea birds, but no polar bears. For this year at least, in the Kara Sea, Mordvintsev and his team will not have any information.

“The future of polar bears, for us,” he says, “is still not clear.”