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Observing polar bears from space

09 July 2014

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Monitoring wildlife in the Arctic is difficult. Study areas are cold, barren and often inaccessible. For decades scientists have struggled to study animals, like polar bears, which live in these remote areas. Now researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey have begun testing a new, yet counterintuitive solution - rather then get close to the animals, monitor them from afar.

Scientists have started using satellites to observe, count and track polar bears. USGS scientists and their Canadian collaborators have begun analysing high-resolution satellite images from a part of the Canadian High Arctic to determine the feasibility of using satellites to study polar bear populations.

"We tested the use of satellite technology from DigitalGlobe to count polar bears by tasking the satellite to collect photos from an area where we were also conducting aerial surveys," said Dr. Todd Atwood, research leader for the USGS Polar Bear Research Program. "We then analysed the satellite and aerial survey data separately and found that the abundance estimates were remarkably similar."

The study, which is led by former USGS scientist and current University of Minnesota researcher Dr. Seth Stapleton, is part of an ongoing effort to identify non-invasive technologies to better understand how polar bears respond to the loss of sea ice due to a warming climate. This study tries to determine the number of polar bears and where they reside on Rowley Island in Nunavut's Foxe Basin during the ice-free summer. "We selected Rowley as our study site because bear density is high during summer and the flat terrain provides an ideal setting to evaluate the use of satellite imagery," said Stapleton.

Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS)

Image credit: CC BY / DigitalGlobe ©2013 - Monitoring polar bears from satellites

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