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Monthly Archives: May 2014 − News & Stories


The long migration of polar bear Kara

Polar bears in Spitsbergen are tagged with satellite transmitters every year by the Norwegian Polar Institute. It is possible to follow some of them on a WWF website on their migrations.

In many cases, the female bears stay within a more or less limited area for quite some time. But polar bear Kara has recently beaten all records: tagged in January 2013 on a glacier between Hornsund and Hambergbukta on Spitsbergen’s east coast, she made a migration of an incredible 3703 km within less than a year. She started towards Novaya Zemlya and then went north towards Franz Josef Land, but so far without going on land anywhere. She then went even further east to Severnaya Zemlja, where she finally spent some time ashore after having crossed the Kara Sea completely. Kara finally went west again to Franz Josef Land, where the sender stopped transmitting data. She might have gone into a snow cave to give birth to polar bear babies – maybe she is happy mother of two little polar bears by now …?

The female polar bear Kara was, at the time of tagging, 13 years old, 2.2 m long and weighs a moderate 217 kg.

Generally, data from the most recent tagging season in spring 2014 may suggest that female polar bears have currently got less offspring than in other years: only 3 out of 29 females had cubs in their second year, the normal rate should be somewhere near one third. But the total number is too low to fully exclude coincidence.

Marking and tagging polar bears is controversial, as tranquilizing the bears while following them with a helicopter is quite stressful for the animals and there are cases when the bear did not survive. This happened in October 2013 on Edgeøya (eastern Spitsbergen) and possibly again in April 2014. In the latter case, however, the exact cause of death is not yet certain. In spring 2014, a total of 73 polar bears have been tranquilized and examined in Spitsbergen.

The migration of polar bear Kara from Spitsbergen to the Russian Arctic. Image source: WWF

Migration of polar bear Kara

Source: WWF, Svalbardposten

Arctic 2014: Lofoten, Bear Island, Jan Mayen, Spitsbergen

The arctic summer season 2014 is just about to begin: tomorrow we will start with SV Antigua in Bodø, sailing to Lofoten and then northwards to Bear Island and Spitsbergen.

In July, I will be in Jan Mayen and then return to Spitsbergen for several trips lasting into September. So it will be worth checking the photos and triplogs regularly!

Lofoten: the beginning of a long arctic summer. Antigua in Trollfjord, 2013.

Antigua, Lofoten

Evolution of Polar bears

The evolution of Polar bears is still a matter of scientific debates. Fossils and accordingly data are scarce. Traditionally it has been believed that the species is very young, only between 100,000 and 200,000 years old. Ages putting the origin of the species back into mid or early Pleistocene times have also been suggested (see also Spitsbergen-Svalbard.com news from April 2012: Species “polar bear” older than believed so far).

A recent publication based on genetical studies now suggests that Polar bears are separated from Brown bears since 479,000–343,000 years ago, which is, within error limits, in accordance with other previous, but also quite recent, studies (see link above). Evidence is thus increasing that the evolution of Polar bears goes back to the mid-Pleistocene, the middle of the last (and still ongoing) ice age, which started about 2.6 million years ago.

The question is not only of scientific interest: If the species was as young as 100,000 years, then the current warm period would be the first challenge of this kind in the history of the species. But if the species is nearly half a million years old, as suggested in this most recent study, then Polar bears have, during their evolution, already survived more than one warm period in the past, which indicates an ability of the species to survive warmer conditions. Which is obviously not a guarantee for the survival of Polar bears through rapid changes into even warmer climates, but sheds some light on the ongoing debate of Polar bears in a changing climate.

Polar bears: their evolution probably goes several hundred thousand years back. And the photo was taken in Spitsbergen, not in the zoo.

Polar bear, Spitsbergen

Source: Cell

Cruise tourism statistics in Spitsbergen: declining numbers

In April, the latest statistics on cruise tourism in Spitsbergen were published by the Sysselmannen. They give detailed information about the development of this tourism sector until 2013. Against common belief, there is no indication for an increase of cruise tourism.

The number of big cruise ships visiting Spitsbergen as one of several parts their route remained almost unchanged (27 in 2013, 28 in 2012). As some of the ships make several trips per season, the number of trips is a little higher (33 trips in 2013, 36 in 2012). In contrast, a significant decline is indicated by the number of passengers: After an extraordinary increase in the record year 2012 (42,363 passengers) this figure went down to 36 257 in 2013. In the years before, there was a decreasing trend in the number of trips (from 50 in 2005 to 28 in 2011) as well as in the number of passengers (from 32,781 in 2007 to 24,187 in 2011).

The figures are presented in the Sysselmannen´s annual report on tourism. The statistics make a distinction between the big cruise ships, visiting Spitsbergen as one of several destinations on their route, and smaller expedition ships. In contrast to cruise ships, expedition ships travel primarily or exclusively in the waters around Spitsbergen. They usually start and end their trips in Longyearbyen. In the last year the sizes of these ships varied between 5 and 300 passengers. The category of expedition ships includes small yachts, mostly in local ownership, sailing ships like Noorderlicht and Antigua as well as larger ships like Plancius and Ortelius operated by Oceanwide Expeditions or Quest and Ocean Nova operated by Polar Quest. The number of expedition ships went down significantly in 2013 compared to 2012 from 35 to 24. Here too, the year 2012 was an all-time high. On the other hand the number of passengers was lower in 2012 than in 2013. With 9,277 it ranged within the trend of the previous years. 2013 however with 10,530 the number of passengers on expedition ships was for the first time higher than in the former record year 2008 with 10,040 passengers.

The figures do not indicate a clearly defined picture. Looking at both categories ‘big cruise ships’ and ‘smaller expedition ships’ together, the total number of passengers went significantly down from 51,640 to 46,787, compared to the record year 2012. The relatively strong decline on cruise ships is accompanied by a moderate increase on expedition ships. A clear overall trend cannot be identified. The often heard argument, that ship-based tourism in polar areas is growing rapidly and in an uncontrolled way, is however disproved by the figures, concerning Spitsbergen (this holds true also for Antarctica in a similar way, see antarctic.eu-news May 2014). Considering the decline in cruise tourism in Greenland since 2010 such arguments must be seen as a myth. Though, in the past they were used to reason for restrictive legislative amendments concerning tourism (see spitsbergen-svalbard.com-news April 2014).

Including the land based tourism, the total number of tourists visiting Spitsbergen has increased in 2013, as the Sysselmannen´s report also shows. The number of guest-nights in Longyearbyen climbed markedly from 84,643 (2012) to 107,086 (2013) and the number of flight passengers from 40,153 (2012) to 47,645 (2013). Land based tourism is basically concentrated in and around Longyearbyen, with a focus on on snowmobile trips followed by dog sledge excursions and other activities.

Cruise tourism in Spitsbergen involves a range of ships from yachts and sailing boats to large ocean liners.

Ships Spitsbergen

Source: Sysselmannen

Spitsbergen panorama site: now better and bigger

The Spitsbergen panorama site has not only grown quite a lot recently, but it is also structured a much better way now. The growth over the last months was bigger than expected and made it necessary to improve the structure to make it easier to find a panorama for a site or to know where a certain panorama was taken. Small maps are now being added to individual areas to make navigation easier.

Also the number of panoramas has increased greatly over the last couple of months, and there is definitely more to come!

Enjoy the Spitsbergen panorama site.

One of many Spitsbergen panoramas: Many smaller icebergs with fantastic shapes and colours are frozen in the fast ice of Mohnbukta. These images were taken inside an iceberg that had several old meltwater caves.

Record-breaking number of participants at Spitsbergen Skimarathon

At this year’s Spitsbergen Skimarathon, which took place today (03 May), the number of participants was above 800, so far an all-time record. Amongst the participants was Jens Stoltenberg, former head of the Norwegian government and next general secretary of Nato.

The skiers could enjoy a perfect early May day with blue skies, sunshine, calm air and temperatures slightly below zero. The Norwegian Eldar Rønning was, as expected, fastest man. Amongst the women, Celine Brune-Lie was the first one to complete the marathon distance.

On June 07, marathon runners from many countries will start for the northernmost regular marathon that is held annually.

Spitsbergen Skimarathon (archive image, 2013).

Spitsbergen Skimarathon

Narwhale´s tusk serves as a sensory organ

The remarkable and unique tusk of the narwhale serves as a sensible sensory organ which enables the animals to sense changes in their environment. Scientists were now able to confirm this assumption.

Narwhales are, together with white whales (belugas), part of the Monodontidae family. They live in the Arctic Ocean, especially west and east of Greenland, around Spitsbergen and north of the Siberian coast.

The main characteristic of the narwhale is it´s up to 2,60m long tusk. It usually grows from the males left canine tooth, breaking through the upper lip in a spiral rotation. In single cases a second tusk can grow from the right canine tooth. It is also possible that female individuals have one or two tusks but this is rather uncommon.

In history there were many differing theories trying to explain the function of the narwhale´s tusk. Today there are two common explanations: They serve as a distinguishing attribute for males, to maintain hierarchies and as a sensory organ.

Dr. Martin Nweeia from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) is part of an international group of scientists who study the function of the narwhale´s tusk. They were now able to confirm their assumption that the tusk serves as a sensible sensory organ. In previous studies there was pointed out that the narwhale´s tusk, differing from other mammal teeth, is not covered by an enamel which protects the tooth against external influences. Now the scientists could reveal that the outer layer of the tusk, the cementum, is porous and that the inner layers contain microscopic tubes leading to the center of the tooth. So the material of the tooth is rigid but permeable. In the inner core of the tusk, in the pulp, the scientists could find nerve endings connected to the whale´s brain. With this structure the tusk is sensible for changes in the external environment such as changes in temperature, salt level in the water or other chemical parameters. Experiments could show that the whale´s heart rate changed when the tusk was exposed to different salt levels in the water.

It is suggested that the ability of the tusk serves the male individuals to find food or to find females and to evaluate their willingness to mate.

The scientists are now interested in the question if the narwhales unique ability to use a tooth as a sensory organ is an evolutionary advancement or an ability which is left from a former stage of development.

Tusk and skull of a narwhale, stranded in Bellsund, Spitzbergen.

Narwal Stoßzahn

Source: BBC Nature News

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