Researchers are going on a bear hunt, using AI and radar to locate burrows and track down threatened arctic predators
Genghis Khan fulfilled his last wish: despite attempts by archaeologists and scientists to find the final resting place of the Mongol ruler, the place remains a secret 800 years after his death. The search for his tomb, however, has inspired an innovative project that can help protect polar bears.
“I randomly tuned the radio one night and heard an expert talking about using synthetic aperture radar [SAR] to search for Genghis Khan’s tomb,” said Tom Smith, associate professor of plant and wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah. “They were using the SAR to penetrate the forest canopy layers high in Mongolia, looking for the ruins of a funerary structure.”
Talking to engineers, including BYU’s Dr. David Long, Smith discovered that SAR is used by the military to detect enemy camps, tanks and vehicles hidden under camouflage and is being studied as a potential tool for finding avalanche survivors. He and the team at Polar Bears International (PBI) were looking for technology to detect polar bear dens. “It was very fortuitous to hear that broadcast,” says Smith.
Successful pilot tests using SAR to find simulated polar bear dens took place in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 2014 and 2015. The project was resurrected with tests in March 2021 on a snowy mountain plateau in the Manti-La national forest. Sal, Utah. A SAR device was installed on a Cessna O-2A Skymaster that flew 900 meters over PBI researchers and BYU students digging holes three feet under the snow. With the lack of polar bears in Utah, students either crawled in to act as targets, or created simulated bears made of cardboard and aluminum foil.
Building dens is a critical period for polar bears. For months, vulnerable puppies depend on breast milk and the safety of their den to survive. As polar bears are driven inland by the retreat of sea ice, the areas of definition and oil and gas activities overlap more and more. The disturbances can cause fearful mothers to abandon their dens. The chances of survival of weak and underdeveloped puppies prematurely in snow and ice are drastically reduced.
With less than 26,000 polar bears that still exist worldwide and an estimated 40% decline in some populations, such as the southern Beaufort Sea, every den and bear count.
SAR offers a broader scan and the radar data provides specific locations, rather than just an image. It works in harsh conditions, while wind, snow, ice and fog can make FLIR useless. “We spent days in the tundra at 40 degrees below zero, looking at where FLIR said there was a hole and there was nothing,” said Smith. “We had a very personal interest in finding better technology.”
Recent SAR tests look promising – the radar can see students and simulated bears. Next, the technology is likely to be tested in real polar bear dens in Canada or Norway.
There are also hopes that it will soon be possible to search for polar bears from satellites in space. “A satellite passing through the Arctic, giving an idea of the numbers and movements of polar bears, would be transformative,” says Geoff York, senior director of conservation at PBI. “The radar engineers we work with at BYU say the technology exists. In the next decade, we will be able to see this change. It would be a great game exchange. “
Other projects to monitor polar bear movements in the Arctic include temporary “skin burr” tracking devices. PBI worked with 3M, the company behind Post-it notes, to develop small bioplastic triangles with curled bristles that stick to the skin of a polar bear, like a burr, along with a medical patch. Burrs are smaller and easier to put on than necklaces and less invasive than earrings or implants, which require surgery. They can handle the extreme cold, snow, ice, salt water and the difficult lifestyle of a polar bear. By the time the polar bear changes and the tag comes out with its hair, the data has already been collected via satellite.
The marks were applied to five wild bears in western Hudson Bay, in the province of Manitoba, Canada, in November 2020, with plans to mark more, possibly in Greenland and Nunavut, in northern Canada, when Covid restrictions allow. “Being able to monitor polar bears is very important,” says York. “Historically, we only have movement data for female polar bears, as radio collars slip from the thickest necks of adult males. We don’t know how adult or sub-adult men use habitats. As sea ice changes in the Arctic, we need to better understand what habitat is using, so that we can model potential impacts. “
The technology to understand what happens inside the lairs has also improved since the days of researchers sitting on the ice to watch the bears. PBI uses remotely controlled cameras fixed outside the dens and is working with an artificial intelligence specialist at the San Diego Zoo to produce cameras that can detect targets and track their movements. “To argue that someone has disturbed a polar bear pit, you need to know what normal denning behavior is,” says Kirschhoffer. “The more we know, the more we can protect polar bears.”
PBI also tested an early warning radar system last year in Churchill, Manitoba. “The conflict between humans and polar bears is a growing problem in the Arctic,” says York. “As sea ice melts more quickly, polar bears spend more time on land and get closer to communities. It’s happening in Russia, Canada … Bears have attacked people or damaged property. But in the conflict between humans and polar bears, it is the polar bear that often loses its life. “
The SpotterRF compact surveillance radar system is used by the US military to warn of invaders, drones and enemy vehicles. “It is highly mobile and detects everything around you in 360 degrees,” says York. “If there is any movement, he says where he is and tracks him. Anything we can do to keep polar bears and people safe is a good move. The technology is great because it works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and sees through darkness, snow and fog. “
The early warning radar system is ready to be used to monitor polar bears, with the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard or Churchill as likely options. It sends an alert to a person, so that they can issue a warning. But there are also plans to use radar to trigger an impediment, such as strobe light or noise, to keep bears away.
The most interesting innovation of the system is artificial intelligence. “We focused on training radar detection AI,” says York. “Of all these things that we are detecting, what is a person? What is a tundra buggy? What’s grass blowing? What is a polar bear? You are not using images. He is using quantitative radar data to determine what is what. Over the course of the season, we had 130 polar bear targets and that gave us precision in the high 90 percentile range. “
The potential of AI is exciting for conservationists. “With technology, we are able to gather large amounts of information, but how do we find the data we want? How do you filter it to make sure you don’t worry about snowmobiles, but do you see the polar bear walking across the screen? ”Says Kirschhoffer. “AI is the key to all of this, for radar, SAR and cameras. AI can provide us with more ‘smart’ data. “
These are desperate measures for times of despair. “If we were doing our work collectively and taking care of our planet, there would be no need for all these high-tech solutions,” admits York.
Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be lost by the end of the century. The disappearance of sea ice, caused by the climate crisis, is its biggest threat. “All the technology tools we use are palliative to help protect the animals we have,” says Kirschhoffer.
“But, ultimately, the solution is nothing like this technology; is to make people change their behavior, live more sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint, and perhaps pushing technology to find more efficient ways to live on this planet. This is the technology we need most: carbon capture, more efficiency, electric cars, whatever reduces our impact on the planet. “
It is difficult to predict whether we will be able to change our behavior and how much we will depend on technological solutions to help tackle the climate crisis. “Covid has been an interesting example,” says Kirschhoffer. “Who would have thought that you could launch a vaccine in a year to solve Covid? I have a lot of faith that we can solve the climate problem. We just need to strive and make it happen. “