Polar Bear Response to Sea Ice Loss

What Are They Doing?

Polar bears, Ursus maritimus, spend most of their time on the sea ice – where they travel, hunt, and sometimes even give birth. However, during the summer the sea ice retreats northward and leaves some polar bears on shore for several months. These bears may not be able hunt and may face warmer temperatures than they do on the ice. The research team investigated how the polar bears cope with these difficult conditions on shore, and attempted to determine if they possess adaptations similar to bears that hibernate in the winter.

A research team made up of scientists from the University of Wyoming, United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) used the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea and on-board helicopters to approach polar bears on the sea ice and collect measurements and samples to determine the overall physical condition of the animals. The research team recaptured bears that were originally tested in May 2009, to compare data from before and after the summer of 2009. Measurements included weight and length of the bear as well as overall appearance. In addition, the researchers measured body fat, muscle condition, and took blood samples.

Knowing how polar bears adjust when living on shore, and why they may not be able to adjust will provide important information to indigenous people, U.S. and international management agencies, conservation groups, and policy maker's for addressing the polar bear's needs in the future.

Where Are They?

The polar bear research team, as well as other marine biologists and oceanographers, lived and worked from the USCGC Polar Sea in the Beaufort Sea. The team traveled via helicopter to and from the ship to approach and conduct sampling on ice-bound populations of polar bears living on thick multiyear sea ice.

Expedition Map


Sunrise: depends on where I was... Sunset: depends on where I was...The last two days have been bitter sweet - while I am very excited to be on my way home, I am also very sad that my adventure is coming to end. The final morning on board the Polar Sea was spent packing the final pieces of gear and weighing it all for the helicopter trip to shore. The science crew all gathered in the hanger to take turns as the helicopters shuttled people back and forth to shore. The flight was only about 5 minutes, but seemed to take us so far away from the boat where we had spent the last 5 weeks. It...
Location: Lat: 73 40.564 N Long:  161 02.401 W Sunrise: 12:08 pm Sunset: 4:42 pm Today was the final day of the trip on the Polar Sea before we disembark tomorrow. We spent the last day and night traveling over 200 miles to reach the final location where there were three bears clustered together. We had traveled so far west that we were nearly back to where we had been several weeks ago. The hope was to recapture at least one of the bears from the group to add to their sample size. The team suited up one last time for the trip out on the helicopters. Hank, Merav and John getting...
Location: Lat: 71 16.503 N Long:  144 18.779 W Sunrise: 10:19 am Sunset: 4:25 pm ****Over the past week, several members of the science crew on board have been invited to have dinner with the captain. It is quite a honor to be invited to join the captain for dinner. Last week the media crew and helicopter crew were also asked to join the captain for dinner. The media crew having dinner with Captain Vaughn in his cabin. The captain has a private cabin with his own conference table that can be used a dinner table. All of the food was the same as we would have eaten in the regular mess...
Location: Lat: 71 55.927 N Long:  143 40.160 W Sunrise: 10:18 am Sunset: 4:40 pm ****I spent the afternoon working with the ice team to help with the coring process. As usual we got all of gear on, including our survival suits. The suits are one complete water tight suit that goes on top of your clothing. It has booties for your feet and seals around your wrists and neck to prevent water from seeping in. While these are great for keeping us dry, they are also very challenging to put on and warm. Usually, I get really hot just trying to put the suit on before heading out. Once we were...
Location: Lat: 72 20.033 N Long: 145 59.64 W Sunrise: 10:08 am Sunset: 5:00 pm Today we officially have one week left on board the Polar Sea - we disembark on Sunday, November 1st and then I make the trek back home to the San Francisco Bay Area. I am both excited to return home to my students, my husband and my cat, but also sad to be leaving this rich experience that I have been able to be part of. Unfortunately, the weather has not changed enough in order to fly safely - so we were grounded yet another day. However, we remain hopeful for better weather conditions tomorrow. We have been...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

23 September 2009 to 1 November 2009
Location: Coast Guard Ship, Beaufort Sea
Project Funded Title: Adaptive long-term fasting in land- and ice-bound polar bears: coping with ice loss in the Arctic?

Meet the Team

Cristina Galvan's picture
Impact Academy of Arts and Technology
Menlo Park, CA
United States

From an early age, Cristina Galvan has loved nature. She grew up camping every summer in Yosemite with her family. Ms. Galvan received her bachelor’s degree in integrative biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and continued her graduate studies through the Stanford University Teacher Education Program. She recently joined the staff at Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, California. She has taught Integrated Science, Biology and Physics. She works hard to provide a rigorous but supportive curriculum for her students, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college. In her spare time, Ms. Galvan enjoys cooking, yoga, hiking, reading, traveling, and, at times, playing video games. She is excited to be part of PolarTREC and looks forward to sharing her experiences with her class and other teachers.

Merav Ben-David's picture
University of Wyoming
Laramie, WY
United States

Merav Ben-David is an associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology and the Ecology program at the University of Wyoming. After receiving both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Tel-Aviv University in Israel, she received her PhD at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in 1996. Dr. Merav Ben-David primarily studies carnivores and her research interest revolves around the interaction between animal behavioral ecology, population dynamics, and ecosystem function.

Henry Harlow's picture
University of Wyoming
Laramie, WY
United States

Henry "Hank" Harlow is a zoology and physiology professor at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Harlow’s research emphasis is on the physiological adaptations of animals living in stressful environments and the health of animals experiencing various states of hypothermia. These research interests have included studies on Komodo dragons in Indonesia, hibernating black bears in the near arctic and now, polar bears that may be expressing a form of “walking hibernation” during summer ice free months in the Arctic.

John Whiteman's picture
University of Wyoming
Laramie, WY
United States

John Whiteman is a PhD student in ecology, zoology, and physiology at the University of Wyoming. He has a strong interest in how the environment and interactions between organisms influence the behavior and physiology of individuals, and ultimately, populations. In particular, he is interested in the fascinating adaptations animals have developed in response to the challenges of living in cold and snow. Mr. Whiteman is excited to participate in the PolarTREC program because scientific literacy, and an understanding of our environment, are fundamentals of education and allow all members of society to make informed decisions.