Q&A: Polar Bears International Expert Geoff York on his Upcoming North Pole Expedition

April 21, 2017 Nicolas Singh

Join Polar Bears International experts en route to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions to learn more about polar bears in their natural habitat!

Join Polar Bears International experts en route to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions to learn more about polar bears in their natural habitat!

This summer, you have a unique opportunity to travel to the North Pole alongside two very special guests from Polar Bears International (PBI). It’s an important conservation organization we’ve been proud to work with over many years, and we’re thrilled to welcome PBI’s executive director Krista Wright  and senior director of conservation Geoff York  on board the world’s most powerful icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory.

Geoff recently took the time to share in this Q&A for Quark readers just what it is that he and Krista have planned for their North Pole expedition.

Curious to learn more about the challenges facing the Arctic polar bear population and how you can help conserve their fragile polar habitats?

Q: Geoff, can you tell us how you became involved in Arctic conservation and what’s driven you to make it your life’s work?

Geoff York: Back in the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to go up to Alaska and the U.S. Arctic, where I did some of my first work in fisheries up on the north slope of Alaska. I really just fell in love with the Arctic as a place, for reasons that are somewhat inexplicable (especially to my parents, even to this day!).

I’ve been doing polar bear fieldwork for decades and still do in the position I’m in now; actually, I just got back from doing capture work out in the Chukchi Sea. Polar Bears International has historically done work in Alaska and Canada, and this was actually year two of our den monitoring work in Svalbard.

Q: What is polar bear “capture work” and what do we learn from it?

Geoff York: When we’re out in the field, we’re doing capture work to learn more about polar bears and the factors influencing their survival. This is when the bears get a full health check-up with weight, measurements and samples. The work helps us understand how a population is faring and how the bears are responding to a changing Arctic. My colleague Alysa McCall and I did an in-depth live chat about this research in the field that can help you understand why it’s so important:

Q: How do you tag polar bears and why?

Geoff York: We’re constantly working on new, innovative ways of tagging polar bears. We recognize that right now, some of the best ways we have to gain information on polar bear movement patterns and use of habitat are via tried and tested methods like satellite collars that can be a bit invasive to bears. Looking at ear tags, for example, we’re currently looking at adhesives or what they call glue-on tags. They have shorter life spans, but are the types of things that can be applied to different types of bears in less invasive ways. It also gives us more diversity in our research, as all of the collar information comes from females.

That’s the type of research that allows us to track polar bears like Polaris, the bear supported by Quark Expeditions in our Polar Bear Tracker program (shown here in Canada’s Hudson Bay).

You can follow the journeys of Polaris, the Quark polar bear, and her cub as they travel between Akimiski Island and Flaherty Island in Canada’s Hudson Bay.

You can follow the journeys of Polaris, the Quark polar bear, and her cub as they travel between Akimiski Island and Flaherty Island in Canada’s Hudson Bay.

We need to push change there as best as we can, which means bringing together new technologies and partners. Engineering groups, for example, often think these wildlife technology challenges are really cool and may do some pro bono or volunteer work where there’s no financial gain, but there is social and moral gain that makes them happy employees. It’s a real win for the companies that get involved in polar conservation and obviously, for our friends the polar bears, as well.

Q: What do people get out of helping polar bears and why should they get involved?

Geoff York: I have seen true, meaningful transformation in people who have gone to the Arctic. Seeing is believing and under the right circumstances and with the right people--it can be transformative.

When I was with the World Wildlife Fund, for example, I brought up Coca-Cola’s international CEO along with his family and had him turn around and say, ‘I want to do something to make a difference,’ and he really did. It was just amazing. If we can take people from a state of unknowing and inaction to being much more knowledgeable about what is going on, they’re much more interested in taking action in whatever way they can. You can begin learning right now at home, or wherever you happen to be-- PBI’s online Education Center is a great place to get started.

It’s also important that people recognize that while Arctic conservation is obviously an issue for Arctic wildlife, it’s a critical concern for all of us humans, as well. You can learn more about that in this live chat:

Q: What kinds of activities and initiatives are happening in the Arctic around polar bear conservation?

Climate change is by far the biggest threat to polar bears and most of our outreach focuses on that. But we also work to reduce conflicts between polar bears and people, and to minimize industrial disturbances. We work closely with a lot of the companies who are already conducting their business in the Arctic, and I’ve found that they’re some of our greatest allies. Oil and gas companies have the people on the ground, in these polar bear habitats, with exclusive knowledge of and access to the area. At the regional level, we work with these companies on mitigating their impact on the environment.

And incredible things can happen when organizations who truly care come together. This year, we had a situation where a polar bear mom decided to den right next to an oil and gas facility, in a big snow drift up against a metal bridge that carried vehicles and oil and gas pipelines.  The company that ran the facility was just down the road from where she chose to den and they instantly took action. They began to monitor her and brought us in to set up a video camera system, to give them a live feed of that spot so they would know when she came out. We worked with the company’s management to restrict traffic during the period that she was in her den.

A female polar bear teaches her cub important Arctic survival skills in its first months out of the den

A female polar bear teaches her cub important Arctic survival skills in its first months out of the den.

It all worked very well. When she came out of the den, they closed the road down and kept it closed for a little over two weeks. All the while, their team were seeing live video of a polar bear mom bringing its cub out for the first time, introducing her baby to the environment! Eventually, they wandered off to the ice like they’re supposed to, and the company was able to open the road back up. It was a great success with management, industry and an NGO all working together.

Q: What can passengers expect onboard your North Pole expedition?

Geoff York: “Krista and I will be among the expert guests on board for our North Pole expedition from July 31–Aug 13, 2017, which also includes a fascinating mix of glaciologists, naturalists and Arctic historians. We’ll be a part of the educational program, so we’ll definitely be giving lectures on who we are and what we do at Polar Bears International, how polar bear research is done, our personal stories as far as what we do in the field of polar bear science, and how PBI is working to make a difference.

We’ll take a look at the big picture: what’s going on with polar bears around the world, what do we know, what don’t we know. We’ll talk about the impacts of climate change, particularly in the Barents Sea region because it’s one of the areas in which we’re seeing change first and fastest. We’re already seeing ecosystem-level shifts happening there; everything from pretty significant changes in denning behavior in polar bears to survival of southern species that often came up to that region but would seasonally leave, but now they’re not. They’re hanging around and competing with the endemic species that were the dominant species there.

An adult polar bear catches an intriguing scent in the frigid Arctic air

An adult polar bear catches an intriguing scent in the frigid Arctic air. Photo credit: Xavier Batllori

We’re seeing changes with animals like ringed seals in areas like the western side of Svalbard, where the Norwegian Polar Institute has had study plots going back several decades. They’ve seen near-complete reproductive failure of ringed seals since 2006, because the lack of snow and ice is pushing the ringed seals into fairly concentrated areas. They typically pup under snow, but now they’re pupping on the surface of the ice and those pups are picked off by bears, foxes, and even gulls and predatory birds.

Outside of the formal lectures, I’m really excited to take this journey with other people who love the polar regions. I’m really interested in the Arctic Basin area, which is a transitory zone that polar bears periodically cross on their way to and from places. It’ll be my first time reaching the North Pole and that’s going to be incredible, but the parts I’m most excited about are everything in between on our crossing--particularly Franz Josef Land. This is where our Norwegian colleagues are increasingly seeing their collared females go to den instead of on Svalbard, because of changing sea ice.

Quark passengers explore a frigid Champ Island rock beach mysteriously littered with spherical stones of varying sizes in Franz Josef Land.

Quark passengers explore a frigid Champ Island rock beach mysteriously littered with spherical stones of varying sizes in Franz Josef Land.

There are parts of the Russian coast line that I haven’t seen, as well. I’ve covered the Laptev Peninsula but I haven’t been in the Kara Sea at all. All of it is just so unique and that’s what makes the Arctic really great, especially with a trip like this on a real icebreaker. We’re going to go places that hardly anyone gets to see and experience!

For the vast majority of us, there’s no better way to learn than seeing and doing for ourselves. It’s part of what makes the immersive, in-the-field experience of visiting the polar regions so compelling and memorable.

If you’re looking for a truly once in a lifetime opportunity to deepen your knowledge and understanding of the issues facing polar bears in the Arctic, join Geoff York and Krista Wright on North Pole expedition, July 31–Aug 13, 2017

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