Oil drilling projects in the Arctic are disrupting polar bear dens

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In recent years the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has become the battleground of a proxy war between conservationists and Big Oil interests. The land has become a safe haven for Alaska's polar bears, providing them with prime real estate for dens where they can seek shelter and female bears can safely give birth to cubs. Big Oil, meanwhile, sees the land as a massively untapped reservoir of natural gas. Big Oil won the fight thanks to a decision from Trump's Department of the Interior to open up some of the land to be leased for oil extraction — but promised to utilize den detection technology that would ensure that polar bears would not have their already dwindling land disrupted. Unfortunately, according to a new study, the oil and gas companies have not lived up to this promise.

Research published Thursday in PLOS ONE found that technology used to detect the location of polar bear dens is largely failing — resulting in essential land used by polar bears for winter denning being disrupted and rendered unusable by the bears. Oil and gas companies rely on Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) surveys — an aerial detection method that is supposed to be capable of detecting dens that are largely invisible to the eye, buried deep under the winter snow. But when researchers compared locations of known dens to those identified by the FLIR surveys, it found that the technology was failing to identify as many as 55 percent of denning spots. With the technology unable to accurately spot polar bear dens, it runs the risk of exposing these locations to drilling and disruption — a problem that will only continue to get worse as climate change shrinks the number of viable locations for the bears to burrow during the winter.

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“Given current limitations, FLIR is unlikely to assure that all maternal dens can be located and hence protected. Protecting denning bears is a critical management need, and is an increasingly important matter," Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bears International, tells Mic. "Whereas following strict protocols known to maximize FLIR detection might increase success rates, testing of alternate methods to detect occupied dens is essential to protecting reproduction in this threatened population.”

One of the biggest problems with opening ANWR up to oil extraction is that process and the livelihood of polar bears will always be at odds. The process of exploring the land for oil and gas drilling is a particularly disruptive process that requires large crews of workers to drive 90,000-pound trucks across the frozen tundra of the area, send high-pressure vibrations hundreds of feet into the ground to identify potential oil reserves, and eventually start drilling deep into the earth. Much of this has to take place during the winter months when the ground is hard and frozen — the only time that it is fully capable of supporting the weight and burden of the heavy oil machinery. The problem is, according to Polar Bears International, that is the same period of time during which polar bears are retreating to their dens to give birth to cubs. Those dens serve as the young bears' homes for the first three months of their lives, requiring safety and protection from outside threats. The oil extraction process deeply disrupts this — especially when companies fail to accurately identify denning locations.

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This problem is likely to only get worse as climate change continues to rear its ugly head. Polar bears have already been pushed away from the stable sea ice once found in the Beaufort Sea, where they once were able to safely den during the winter months. Ice around the Arctic has been weakening for decades now, according to research published by NASA. Older, thicker sheets of ice that remain year round have largely disappeared — replaced primarily by younger, thinner layers of ice. More than 70 percent of ice in the Arctic sea is seasonal, according to researchers — meaning that it is only around for a few months during the winter and is far more susceptible to environmental conditions like wind, making it untenable for denning. Given that the Arctic is warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the globe, it is unlikely that stronger, long-term ice will be able to establish itself in the region and once again provide polar bears with their preferred denning destinations.

This has pushed polar bears onto land during the winter, where they can find more consistent areas to set up shop. But while on land, these bears are now at risk of having their winter dens disrupted or even destroyed by oil extraction expeditions. According to a study conducted by Polar Bears International, the seismic surveys that oil companies conduct — the ones that send high-pressure vibrations deep below the surface of Arctic land, can be extremely harmful to polar bears. According to the organization's estimates, there is a 25 percent chance that at least one polar bear will be crushed to death during seismic surveys. Given new findings that existing FLIR survey techniques are actively failing to identify polar bear dens, it is possible that more could be put at risk by the seemingly inadequate technology. Threats to these polar bears only worsen as the oil extraction process gets underway. Pollution events, particularly oil spills, could create new threats for polar bears living in the region and could severely hamper access to essential food sources.

Human-caused climate change has already taken a significant toll on polar bears — particularly those in regions of the Arctic that are now being eyed for oil extraction. According to a study published in Ecological Applications, the polar bear population in northeast Alaska and the Northwest Territories already experienced a 40 percent decline between 2001 and 2010. It is projected that the species will see another loss of between one-third and one-half of its population by 2050 — and that was before ANWR was opened up to more oil extraction projects.

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It is unfortunately fitting that new projects to extract fossil fuels — the very things that are largely responsible for the level of global temperature change that has left much of the Arctic untenable for polar bear survival — are now threatening to harm the already shrinking polar bear population. Polar bears are an endangered species, but recent changes to the Endangered Species Act may open the bears up to new threats that otherwise would have never encroached upon their habitat. If polar bears are to recover from the already devastating losses they have suffered, it will require once again acknowledging that the species is at risk and that current technology designed to detect and protect the dens of the animals is failing. Research suggests that more thorough applications of tools like FLIR surveys — conducting multiple surveys, for example — could help to mitigate some of the risk. But at the end of the day, the only way to guarantee that polar bears in the Arctic have the land that they need to create dens and give birth to new generations is to simply stop disrupting them.