Tag Archives: polar bears

Polar Bears and Guns and Politics

Polar bears are endangered and need protection. They hunt and eat meat to survive. Seals are such meat as are scientists walking and working on the sea ice. I am planing an experiment in polar bear habitat. Do I need a gun to protect myself and my students working with me? About 10 people told me “YES” last week, all with experience working in polar bear habitat. Who am I to say no? Encounters between bears and people happen, but only rarely. None of the 10 people advising me to carry a shotgun or rifle ever discharged their weapon or had a bear encounter.

Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

In 3 month’s time I hope to do ~20 day trips from Thule Air Base near Pituffik, Greenland to explore the oceanography and acoustics of the local fjord covered by sea ice. The US National Science Foundation supports this work, maintains a dormitory where we sleep, and provides us with two snowmobiles. We will use these motorcycles on skies to reach science stations on the ice covering Wolstenholme Fjord. We will drill 10” holes through 3-5 feet of sea ice, set-up an electric winch connected to a small generator, and probe the ocean’s temperature, salinity, bottom depth, and ice thickness to prepare for a quiet acoustic communication system to move data under water from the outer fjord to the pier at Thule and the internet.


Leading this science effort, I will have to estimate and manage potential risks which include encounters with polar bears. I will have to decide how much money to allocate to each risk that then may not be available for other activities such as to support students, buy better sensors, or return in the summer. The first and almost always best response is to hire a local hunter who knows the area along with its bears, ice, and weather. There are about 600 people living in Qaanaaq about 100 miles to the north. Most of them are children and grand-children who were forcibly removed from Pituffik in 1952 when more than 13,000 Americans built a large air field during the height of the Cold War. The local llanguage spoken in remote Qaanaaq is the Inuktitut dialect of north-west Greenland, the first foreign language learnt in school is Danish, and English is not widely spoken, however, Qaanaaq has two non-Inuit villagers who originate from Denmark and Japan.

Relations between Qaanaaq and Thule Air Base are complex and sensitive with regard to politics and finances. One of many perspective is that of Kim Petersen who writes in Dissident Voice about “The Struggle against Colonialism and Imperialism in Kalaallit Nunaat.” Kalaallit Nunaat refers to Greenland in the local language. While the forced removal of native populations from Pituffik to Qaanaaq in 1952 and the crash of a nuclear armed B-52 bomber into Wolstenholme Fjord in 1968 are not in dispute, the political arguments presented seem to me rather narrow, one-dimensional, and rooted in a tired ideological Left-Wing mode of conspiracy-thinking. Does this perspective represent the community of Qaanaaq? Perhaps I need to ask someone who may know:

Working on the sea ice off northern Greenland [Photo credit, Steffen Olsen]

Working on the sea ice off northern Greenland [Photo credit, Steffen Olsen]

It is not straight-forward to bring a gun to Greenland as it requires a large amount of paper work. Another layer of regulations relates to bringing a gun to an US military installation. Shooting a polar bear is a burocratic and political nightmare, because strict quotas exist for the “taking” of polar bears. International complications include Canada, because the quotas are assigned to Canadian and Greenlandic hunters from the same bear population. It is a sensitive topic in many dimensions, a riddle for which I have no solution.

How much time do I spent to prepare for an unlikely event such as a fatal polar bear encounter? Could I not argue with ethics that were instilled into me when hiking in the back-country of Denali National Park (no guns there). Park rangers then told me that I enter bear habitat and should do so respectfully with minimal impact. They gave me useful pointers on how to lower contact and I saw no bears hiking for 4 days alone without a gun, but grizzlies eat berries while polar bears do not.

So, should I carry a gun, if I am not ready to kill a bear while working in bear country? I can accept the consequences of injury and death for myself, however, I cannot do so for those who are with me. Perhaps this then is a path to a solution: Discuss this with all who will be with me on the ice.

Did I ever see a Polar Bear?

When people hear that I have worked as a physical oceanographer in the Arctic for almost 20 years, their first question is often: “Did you ever see a Polar Bear?” The answer is a yes, but when we see bears, it is usually as a tiny moving speck of yellowish white near the white, icy, and hazy horizon. Only twice was it different. The first time was in October 2003 to the north-west off Arctic Alaska when a young bear swam towards and around the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy doing station work:

Polar Bear seen Oct.-10, 2003 from aboard the USCGS Healy to the north-east of Alaska [Credit: Andreas Muenchow, University of Delawarel]

Polar Bear seen Oct.-10, 2003 from aboard the USCGC Healy to the north-east of Alaska [Credit: Andreas Muenchow, University of Delaware]

The second close encounter was last year as the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen was about to leave Nares Strait on Aug.-12. Out of the 100+ pictures snapped of this bear, the ship’s Steward Kirk McNeil of Labrador probably took the best shot:

Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

This bear approached the drifting ship leisurely over a 10 minutes period from a large piece of ice that also drifted with the tides and currents. My PhD student Pat Ryan captured the last 2 minutes of this visit with her iPhone. The voice is hers (I also discern the voice of Ice Specialist Erin Clarke). Greenland is in the background to the east:

ADDENDUM Feb.-13, 2013: I just found this map of the spatial distribution of polar bears from a Dec.-23, 2012 article in the Washington Post by Juliet Eilperin entitled “Polar bear trade, hunting spark controversy.” Writing for the Wall Street Journal Feb.9, 2013, Zac Unger commented with the question “Are polar bears really disappearing?”

Polar bear population and their trends. [Source: Polar Bear Specialist Group. Laris Karklis/The Washington Post. Published on December 23, 2012, 5:24 p.m.]

Polar bear population and their trends. [Source: Polar Bear Specialist Group. Laris Karklis/The Washington Post. Published on December 23, 2012, 5:24 p.m.]

Addendum Feb.-25, 2013: A very funny bear commercial.

CCGS Henry Larsen: More on People, Places, and Services

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship is powered by such a diverse and talented group of women and men from Newfoundland, Labrador, and beyond, that one or even two posts here hardly do justice to describe how well they run their ship and its many facilities that many mid-sized cities do not have. Monday I wrote about the people who run the power plant and electric departments as well as the seamen who fight fires and run fishing fleet and port facilities. Today I want to show the airport and talk a little about the civil administration that oversees and manages all aboard the ship.

Landing deck of the CCGS Henry Larsen with aircraft preparing for take-off to survey the ice conditions ahead. Shown are Chief Officer Brian Legge (far right) who is in command of the airport and is talking to Pilot Don Dobbin (2nd from right), scientist Renske Gelderloos (3rd from right), Ice Services Specialist Erin Clarke (4th from right), and Helicopter Engineer Pierre Autran performs last checks inside the helicopter. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

The airport consists of hangar, landing pad, helicopter, traffic control, and fire fighting stations. Don Dobbin was our pilot and Pierre Autran his engineer who was pulled out of retirement for this trip. Incidentally, Pierre and I had sailed together on the same ship in 1993 more than 200 miles north of eastern Siberia. Then all flights were prohibited by Russian aviation authorities: Politics were different 20 years ago, one hopes. No such threat of being shot down existed this year between Greenland and Canada, but for severe ice conditions and poor internet connections, the airport was very busy almost every day for both ice surveys ahead and behind the ship. It also supported landing parties to set up and/or service 4 weather stations.

Helicopter pilot Don Dobbin with scientist Dave Riedel on Hans Island servicing a weather station in the center of Nares Strait. Ellesmere Island in the background. [Photo Credit: Allison Einolf, Minnesota]

The air traffic control takes place both on the flight deck where Chief Officer Brian Legge is in charge and from the bridge where the officer-of-the-deck is in overall command as either First Officer Chris Steward or Second Officer Rebecca Acton-Bond place the ship, alert the entire ship, and often oversee other science operations as well. All of these are demanding jobs, all these jobs need precision in the concise communication of orders and permissions granted or denied as well as execution of all operations, because helicopter operations are probably one of the most dangerous and critical operations possible on the ship.

Attention to detail, clear communication, and calm execution lower the risk of death and destruction that helicopters can and often do cause. The National Science Foundation sent me to a 4-day course in helicopter safety and what to do if accidents happen over water or on land. It was a sobering course. For this reason, perhaps, Captain Wayne Duffett is almost always on the deck during flight operations, but as all good chief executives, he lets his officers and navigators run the operations but is available for help on consultation should it be needed.

Second Officer and navigator Rebecca Acton-Bond on a sunday on the bridge of the CCGS Henry Larsen in August of 2012 in Nares Strait. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard, Kirk McNeil, Labrador]

Leading Seaman and helmsman Melvin Cobb on the bridge. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

The navigator always works with a helmsman or quartermaster who steers the ship following instructions of the officer of the deck, they are on the look-out for ice and bergs to find the best routes. “Best” here refers to the route that requires the least amount of ice breaking. So, if there is one thing that icebreakers like the Larsen are really good at, it is how to avoid ice, because it is a violent and high-energy activity. Fuel is not cheap and less ice is broken, the faster and more efficient the tasks at hand can be accomplished.

And as all people on the ship, everyone has more than one job and this includes the helmsmen and quartermasters like Melvin Cobb or firefighters like Derick Stone, Carl Rose, Paul Gillingham, and Rueben Hillier. They are often members of the deck crew that help landing parties to get ashore and stay save while ashore. This involves the zodiac as well as guns to protect from polar bears:

Seamen Paul Gillingham and Rueben Hillier in the zodiac steered by Chief Officer Brian Legge in Alexandra Fjord, Ellesmere Island on Aug.-13, 2012. A tide gauge was recovered and re-deployed near this site. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Ship Henry Larsen, Barbara O’Connell]

Zodiac launched for a landing part to dismantle a weather station at Cape Baird, Ellesmere Island. Chief Officer Brian Legge at the helm with Melvin Cobb and Derick Stone in the back and center left of the boat filled with scientists Humfrey Melling, David Riedel, Andreas Muenchow, and Renske Geldeloos. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Landing party at Cape Baird, Ellesmere Island to dismantle a weather station. Scientists David Riedel (foreground) and Humfrey Melling (background) are protected by Melvin Cobb (with gun) from polar bears. View is towards the north-west across Lady Franklin Bay to the west of Nares Strait. [Photo Credit: Renske Gelderloos, Oxford University]

Taking down a weather station on Cape Baird, Ellesmere Island, view is to the south-west. People from right to left, the author, David Riedel (kneeling), Melvin Cobb, and Humfrey Melling (covered). [Photo Credit: Renske Gelderloos, Oxford University]

Polar bear on an ice floe in Kennedy Channel as seen from the bridge as the ship was approaching a station a day’s polar bear walk from Cape Baird. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

There is still more to describe such as the hospital, the restaurant and bar, as well as the superior fishing of sailors and fishermen from Newfoundland to find and hook valuable items such as sensors and computers that some scientists left unattended for 3 or 5 or 9 years at the bottom of the unspoiled seas that border Arctic Greenland and Canada. There will be more … as there are more great people who make great science possible.

Nares Strait 2012: Weather Stations and Polar Bears

Weather stations offer basic information that relate to the motion of air, ice, and water. As part of our Nares Strait experiments and expeditions that started in 2003, a group of Canadian, Danish, English, Scottish, and US scientists began installations of a small network of such stations. The first and perhaps most prominent was placed on Hans Island which was a joint Danish and Canadian operation with the data hosted in real-time by the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS, they also host data from Littleton Island on Greenland). This station was refurbished about 10 days ago from the Canadian Coast Guard Henry Larsen:

Dave Riedel (kneeling) and Don Dobbin (standing) on Hans Island during routine maintenance of the weather station. View is across Nares Strait with Ellesmere Island, Canada is towards the north-west. [Photo Credit: Allison Einolf, University of Delaware summer undergraduate intern from Macalaster College.]

Another weather station was placed last week by Dave Riedel and Ron Lindsay with the helicopter pilot Don Dobbin on Brevoort Island, Canada. Dave, who is shown above at the Hans Island weather station just posted his account and close encounters with two polar bears at the University of Oxford’s Arctic Ocean Research page. As a teaser I show the island as seen from the helicopter. Can you find and see the two polar bear in this photograph?

Bears on Brevoort Island, Ellesmere Island during the installation of an automated weather station on Aug.-13, 2012. Photo credit: Dave Riedel, British Columbia as posted at University of Oxford’s Arctic Ocean Research.

The data from the two “new” weather stations at Brevoort Island, Canada at the entrance to Alexandra Fjord and Joe Island, Greenland at the entrance to Petermann Fjord have real-time satellite data download capabilities, but these will need to be turned on from British Columbia by David Riedel and Canadian colleagues. I am not sure if they made it home when we parted yesterday night at Ottawa International Airport when they still had to make 2 or 3 connections to get home after being in the air or in transit for 3 days. More on the fun and adventure of traveling in the far north is reported by Dr. Renske Gelderloos in her blog post today at the Oxford site also. I suspect, that she wrote while being stranded somewhere between Ottawa and London.

Nares Strait 2012: Of Walrus, Polar Bears, Narwhales, and Nibbles

Andreas Muenchow, Aug.-13, 2012 off Pim Island 78:50N 74:21W

Steaming out of Alexandra Fjord after another successful mooring recovery, we are heading south to service two automated weather stations at the southern entrance to Nares Strait. During the last 3 days we have seen schools of narwhales in Petermann Fjord, a polar bear on an ice floe in Kennedy Channel just off Hans Island, and now several schools of walrus in Alexandra Fjord. I do not recall this much wild life during prior trips to Nares Strait.

Walrus on an ice floe in Alexandra Fjord on Aug.-13, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador, Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

Most wildlife is first seen on the bridge of the CCGS Henry Larsen. An announcement is usually made via the ship’s loudspeakers that often pipe music or the report of the day. It is a funny sight to see 10 scientists and 10-20 crew scrambles for cameras and a good viewing position. The officer in charge aboard the bridge is also in charge of the ship’s camera whose pictures are placed on a public computer for all aboard to access. I also placed several videos from Petermann Fjord and glacier on the same public access point. It is remarkable how freely everyone aboard shares photos, videos, as well as data, experiences, and skills. It makes for a most pleasant atmosphere working and living together for the 2-3 weeks we scientists are aboard.

Narwhales at the seaward front of Petermann Gletscher on Aug.-10, 2012. [Photo Credit: Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen, Jo Poole, British Columbia]

As for the narwhales of Petermann Fjord, our sadly absent colleague Dr. Helen Johnson of the University of Oxford was the first person to ever report these bottom-feeding mammals deep inside Petermann Fjord from a helicopter flight in 2009. She also conducted the zodiac survey along the edge of the floating glacier that broke off in 2010 and some more in 2012. Narwhales have been observed to dive down to over 1000 meters depth to feed via tiny pressure and temperature profilers attached their thick skins. The data were transmitted via satellite when the whales surfaced for breathing.

Polar bear as seen in Kennedy Channel on Aug.-12, 2012. [Photo Credit: Kirk McNeil, Labrador from aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

The polar bear knows no fear and approaches every moving object, including a red icebreaker without fear, but lots of curiosity and investigates. Our polar bear perhaps thought that the big red moving ship was a wounded, blood-soaked food item. Everything is food for polar bears; some have been successful to tear down automated weather stations. Two polar bears were sighted from the ship’s helicopter today while landing a party of three to install a new weather station with an Iridium link for real-time data display. Everyone tried to finish the job as quickly as possible to get off the small island without encountering the bears.

Which brings me to the last item of this post: I have been struggling for 2 days with “nibbles” while trying to extract information on how battery voltage changed over time on some of our moorings in order to track down and diagnose a potential malfunction in one of our instruments. And the problem was that some information within a he binary data stream was separated by nibbles. It is a beautiful new word that I learnt 2 days ago from our Chief Scientist Dr. Humfrey Melling. Lots of the many data streams we are dealing with from our moored instruments, our survey instruments, our weather stations, our e-mails, etc., etc. are digital data that are stored as binary (composed of “0” and “1”) or hexadecimal numbers (composed of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,A,B,C,D,E,F) where our decimal number 255, for example is coded as 11111111 in binary or FF in hexadecimal. The number 255 is represented as 8 bits, which equals 1 byte, which equals 2 nibbles. So a “nibble” is half a byte and the F of a hexadecimal number represents the information content of 1 nibble. To get my voltage recordings, I had to separate a single byte into its two nibbles to allocate one (along with another byte) battery voltage while the other was allocated to a second independent battery voltage.

If this sounds “geek,” it is. In order to watch the narwhales, walrus, and polar bears for a short moment of being an intermittent tourist, more advanced skills and a wicked sense of humor and hard work are absolutely essential to be a scientist a research expedition such as the one we are about to conclude. We just finished our last CTD cast at 1:30 am local time to measure temperatures and salinities within one nautical mile off Greenland near 78.5 North and 72.5 West. Rain turned to snow … winter is upon us at 2am on Aug.-14 already.

Addendum: Added photos on Sept.-13, 2012.