A polar bear và her cub hunting their main prey, ringed seals, on sea ice near the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polarbearsinternational.org
A polar bear & her cub hunting their main prey, ringed seals, on sea ice near the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polarbearsinternational.org
Researchers are going on a bear hunt, using AI & radar to lớn spot dens và trachồng the threatened Arctic predators


Genghis Khan got his dying wish: despite attempts by archaeologists and scientists khổng lồ find the Mongolian ruler’s final resting place, the location remains a secret 800 years after his death. The search for his tomb, though, has inspired an innovative sầu project that could help protect polar bears.

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“I randomly tuned inlớn the radio one night và heard an expert talking about the use of synthetic aperture radar khổng lồ look for Genghis Khan’s tomb,” says Tom Smith, associate professor in plant and wildlife sciences at Brigmê say Young University (BYU) in Utah. “They were using SAR lớn penetrate layers of forest canopy in upper Mongolia, looking for the ruins of a burial structure.”

Talking to engineers, including BYU’s Dr David Long, Smith learned that SAR is used by the military lớn detect enemy camps, tanks và vehicles hidden beneath camouflage & is being studied as a potential tool for finding avalanbịt survivors. He and the team at Polar Bears International (PBI) had been looking for a giải pháp công nghệ lớn detect polar bear dens. “It was very serendipitous that I heard that broadcast,” says Smith.


Researchers search for simulated polar bear dens in a specially adapted plane, in a study in Utah. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears InternationalSuccessful pilot tests using SAR to find simulated polar bear dens took place in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in năm trước và 2015. The project was resurrected with trials in March 2021 on a snowy mountain plateau in Utah’s Manti-La Sal national forest. A SAR device was fitted khổng lồ a Cessmãng cầu O-2A Skymaster that flew 3,000ft (900 metres) over PBI researchers & BYU students digging dens a metre under the snow. With a laông chồng of polar bears in Utah, students crawled inside lớn act as targets, or laid out simulated bears made from cardboard & tinfoil.

Building dens is a critical period for polar bears. For months, vulnerable cubs rely on their mother’s milk và the safety of the den lớn survive. As polar bears are driven further inlvà by receding sea ice, denning areas & oil & gas activity increasingly overlap. Disturbances can push fearful mothers lớn abandon their dens. The chances of survival for the weak và undeveloped cubs prematurely out on the snow & ice, are drastically reduced.

With fewer than 26,000 polar bears thought khổng lồ be left globally and an estimated decline of 40% in some populations, such as the southern Beaufort Sea, every den & bear counts.

To argue that someone’s disturbed a polar bear den, you need to lớn know what normal denning behaviour isBJ Kirschhoffer, Polar Bears InternationalGetting reliable data on denning sites is vital. “The Arctic national wildlife refuge is the perfect example,” says BJ Kirschhoffer, PBI’s director of field operations, who led the lachạy thử tests in Utah. “Industry wants khổng lồ go in và pump oil. If we have a tool that definitively says exactly where polar bear dens are, that means keeping people away from those places. If we want bears, we need baby bears, so we’ve sầu got lớn protect those dens.”

SAR detects objects by sending pulses of radio waves; sensors piông chồng up the emang đến or “bounce” khổng lồ maps an area. The ayên is to find the right frequency, a sweet spot, that can penetrate snow but still detect a bear.

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The current technology for detecting dens, forward-looking infrared (FLIR), which detects heat, is less than 50% effective sầu. Smith likens it to a “divining rod”.


Polar bear cubs looking out of a den in Wapusk national park near Churchill, in Manitocha province, Canada. Photograph: Thorsten Milse/AlamySAR gives a wider sweep & radar data provides specific locations, rather than just an image. It works in adverse conditions, whereas wind, snow, ice và fog can render FLIR useless. “We’d spend days out on the tundra at 40 degrees below zero, looking where FLIR said there was a den and there was nothing,” Smith says. “We had a very personal stake in finding better giải pháp công nghệ.”

Recent SAR tests look promising – the radar could see the students and simulated bears. Next, the công nghệ is likely khổng lồ be tested on real polar bear dens in Canadomain authority or Norway.

There are also hopes it could soon be possible khổng lồ vì chưng polar bear surveys from satellites in space. “A satellite going over the Arctic, giving an idea of polar bear numbers and movements, would be transformative sầu,” says Geoff York, PBI’s senior director of conservation. “Radar engineers we work with at BYU say the giải pháp công nghệ exists. In the next decade, we could see that shift. It would be a massive sầu gamechanger.”


A ‘burr tag’ designed khổng lồ stiông xã to a bear’s fur as an alternative sầu to lớn using collars, ear tags or implants to lớn trachồng polar bears. Photograph: Polar Bears InternationalOther projects khổng lồ monitor polar bear movements across the Arctic include “burr on fur” temporary tracking devices. PBI has worked with 3M, the company behind Post-it notes, to lớn develop small bioplastic triangles with coiled bristles that stichồng to a polar bear’s fur, like a burr, along with a medical-grade adhesive. Burrs are smaller and easier khổng lồ attach than collars, & less invasive than ear tags or implants, which require surgery. They can cope with extreme cold, snow, ice, saltwater và a polar bear’s rough lifestyle. By the time the polar bear moults and the tag comes off with its hair, the data has already been collected via satellite.

Tags were applied to lớn five wild bears in western Hudson Bay, in Canada’s Manitoba province in November 20đôi mươi, with plans lớn tag more, possibly in Greenl& and Nunavut, northern Canada, when Covid restrictions allow. “Being able to monitor polar bears matters a lot,” says York. “Historically, we only have movement data from female polar bears, as radio collars slip off adult males’ thicker necks. We don’t know how adult males or sub-adults use habitats. As sea ice changes in the Arctic, we need a better understanding of what’s using which habitat, so we can mã sản phẩm the potential impacts.”

Anything we can vì chưng to lớn keep polar bears and people safe is a good moveGeoff York, PBITechnology lớn understvà what goes on inside dens has also improved from the days of researchers sitting out on the ice to lớn watch the bears. PBI uses remote-controlled cameras fixed outside dens and is working with an artificial-intelligence speciacác mục at San Diego zoo khổng lồ produce cameras that can detect targets & follow their movement. “To argue that someone’s disturbed a polar bear den, you need lớn know what normal denning behaviour is,” says Kirschhoffer. “The more we know, the more we can protect polar bears.”

PBI also trialled an early-warning radar system last year in Churchill, Manitobố. “Human & polar bear conflict is a growing issue around the Arctic,” says York. “As sea ice melts more quickly, polar bears spend longer times ashore & come closer lớn communities. It’s happening in Russia, Canadomain authority … Bears have attacked people or damaged property. But in polar bear-human conflict, it’s the polar bear that often loses its life.”


A polar bear và her cub off Svalbard, Norway. Polar bears are driven farther inland as global heating melts sea ice faster, increasing the chances of conflict with humans. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears InternationalThe SpotterRF compact surveillance radar system is used by the US military khổng lồ warn of enemy intruders, drones and vehicles. “It’s highly Smartphone and detects everything around you at 360 degrees,” says York. “If there’s any movement, it tells you where it is and tracks it. Anything we can bởi vì to lớn keep polar bears and people safe is a good move sầu. The tech’s great because it’s 24/7 and sees through darkness, snow and fog.”

The early-warning radar system is ready to be used lớn monitor polar bears, with Norway’s Svalbard archipelago or Churchill likely options. It sends an alert lớn a person, so they could issue a warning. But there are also plans khổng lồ use the radar to lớn trigger a deterrent, such as strobe lighting or a noise, lớn steer bears away.

The system’s most interesting innovation is artificial intelligence. “We’ve sầu focused on training radar detection’s AI,” says York. “From all these things we’re detecting, what’s a person? What’s a tundra buggy? What’s grass blowing? What’s a polar bear? It’s not using imagery. It’s using quantitative sầu data from the radar lớn determine what’s what. Over the season, we had 130 polar bear targets & it got us accuracies in the high 90-percentile range.”

Researchers set up a camera to monitor a den. Artificial intelligence is now used lớn find bears aước ao all the images captured. Photograph: Kt Miller/Polar Bears InternationalAI’s potential is exciting conservationists. “With tech, we’re able lớn gather massive sầu amounts of information, but how vì chưng we find the data we want? How vày you filter it to make sure it doesn’t care about snowmobiles, but you see the one polar bear that walks across the screen?” says Kirschhoffer. “AI’s the key khổng lồ all that stuff, for radar, SAR and cameras. AI can give us more ‘intelligent’ data.”

These are desperate measures for desperate times. “If we were doing our jobs collectively và caring for our planet, there wouldn’t need to lớn be all these hi-tech solutions,” admits York.

Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be lost by the over of the century. Disappearing sea ice, caused by the climate crisis, is their greakiểm tra threat. “All the tech tools we’re using are stopgaps to help protect the animals we have,” says Kirschhoffer.

“But ultimately the solution isn’t any of this tech; it’s getting people to change their behaviour, to lớn live more sustainably và reduce their carbon footprint, and maybe pushing tech lớn find more efficient ways to lớn live on this planet. That’s the tech we need most: carbon capture, more efficiencies, electric cars, whatever reduces our impact on the planet.”

A PBI den study in Alaska. ‘If we want bears in future, we need baby bears, so we’ve sầu got to lớn protect those dens,’ says BJ Kirschhoffer. Photograph: Polar Bears InternationalWhether we will be able lớn change our behaviour and how much we will rely on tech solutions to lớn help tackle the climate crisis is hard khổng lồ predict. “Covid’s been an interesting example,” says Kirschhoffer. “Who would’ve thought you can crank out a vaccine in a year to lớn solve sầu Covid? I have great faith we can solve the climate problem. We just need khổng lồ buckle down and make it happen.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow our biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston & Patrichồng Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news & features

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