The joint complex expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the Main Command of the Navy "Umka – 2022" has ended. The key event of the expedition was the "White Bear Census" – aerial monitoring of polar bears using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The specialists from the RGS, the Roszapovedcenter of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, the employees at the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve, the ecologists from the autonomous non-profit organizations “Zapovedny Mir” and “Ecofactor” determined the number of the Chukotka-Alaskan polar bear population on Wrangel Island and assessed the ecological condition of the northernmost protected areas of Russia.
Global warming and anthropogenic impact contribute to the reduction of ice cover in the Arctic – the typical habitat of polar bears. The largest terrestrial predators are forced to migrate and look for new food sources. To keep records of polar bears and monitor the state of predators and their habitats is the main task of the "White Bear Census" within the framework of the expedition “Umka – 2022”. The research focused on the Wrangel Island Reserve in Chukotka – one of the main "birth centers" of the polar bear. The isolation of the territory, mountain ranges occupying two-thirds of the island's surface, and numerous seal and walrus haulouts (the food base of the polar predator) are favorable conditions for raising the future offspring.
“The ‘White Bear Census’ was organized by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, the Roszapovedcenter, and ‘Zapovedny Mir’ ANO within the framework of the federal project ‘Conservation of Biological Diversity and Development of Ecological Tourism’. The polar bear is one of 13 animals included on the list of priority species of the federal project. A conservation strategy and a roadmap for the conservation of the species have been developed and approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia for it. Monitoring and census of all polar bear populations, including in key habitats, in specially protected natural areas, is one of the key directions of the roadmap," said Olga Krever, deputy director of the Roszapovedcenter of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia. “In the future, the new method of aerial monitoring will be used in other regions of the Arctic zone of Russia.”
The rapid migrations of polar bears complicate the observation process. They are capable of speeds up to 40 km/h on land and up to 10 km/h in water. Nowadays, ground-based monitoring methods, the installation of camera traps, and satellite collars have become widespread. Such studies take a lot of time and often do not give objective results. For the first time on Wrangel Island, the specialists applied a new method of aerial monitoring using UAVs with a long flight range. The drones allow to safely and quickly collect a large amount of data on the number, spatial distribution, sex, and age of the studied animals.
“Wrangel Island is the first territory where a new method of polar bear census, using drones, was tested. Usually we conduct monitoring using ground methods: we allocate model areas and conduct surveillance by moving on ATVs," said Alexander Gruzdev, director of the Wrangel Island Nature Reserve. “For three weeks, the expedition members, using aerial reconnaissance, surveyed almost the entire area of the island, including mountainous areas. At the moment, 358 bears have been recorded. But the full number of bears on the island has yet to be determined by extrapolating the data obtained using the Chelintsev method. It is important to continue aerial monitoring of polar bears on Wrangel Island to assess the dynamics of the number and condition of the predator group on the island, changes in the conditions of its habitats.”
UAVs work offline for up to 10 hours and withstand temperature changes from -30°C to +40°C. They are launched by a catapult and follow a pre-planned route grid. During the expedition, more than 22,000 photographs of the Arctic island’s fauna were taken from a height of 200-300 m: polar bears, musk oxen, walruses, seals, whales, and birds.
“The island is divided into the areas to study, the area of which is covered by a grid of routes – tacks,” shared Ilya Chernook, the participant of the expedition, director for development at the ecological center ‘Ecofactor’ ANO. “Such a system allows to survey the entire territory in parallel lines. The total length of the routes was 8,317km. We also managed to do a detailed mapping of bear detection sites with precise reference to geographical coordinates and time of detection.”
The harsh weather conditions of the Arctic allow shooting only on clear days with windless weather. The work of UAVs is also complicated by the mountainous massifs of the island, reaching a height of more than 1,000m. Once in strong descending and ascending air currents, the drone can make an emergency landing, which happened during the expedition. A rescue operation was organized to evacuate the aircraft.
“A drone can fly more than 1,000km in a day. The task of the media team is to check the collected data from earth and supplement them," said Leonid Kruglov, head of the expedition's media team. “On the west coast of the island, more than 20 bears were recorded in one place. A three-day expedition was prepared to determine the cause of the accumulation. It turned out that the dead bear attracted other predators with its smell, which was impossible to establish from the photos of the drone. Also, our film crew managed to conduct video surveillance of a bear that was sheltering from the wind in the building of a former kindergarten in the village of Ushakovskoye."
An important task of the expedition was the assessment of the current ecological state of Wrangel Island. Before the creation of the state nature reserve in 1976, a trading post, a weather station, an auxiliary military airfield, and an air defense base had been built here, as well as a reindeer herding state farm. More than a hundred tons of fuel and lubricants, machinery and equipment were imported annually, which remained on the island due to the high cost of liquidation and export. Man-made garbage causes significant damage to the ecosystem of the reserve, which has an exceptional biological diversity for the Arctic.
“We managed to collect 130 samples of river and sea water, snow, soil, and biota – samples of liver, fat, feathers, and wool of fallen animals and birds – to analyze the content of the main dangerous pollutants and heavy metals,” said ecologist at the Russian Geographical Society, senior researcher at the Environmental Monitoring Laboratory Maria Pogozheva. “With the help of UAVs and quadcopters, areas with a high degree of anthropogenic load were filmed: Rogers Bay and Somnitelnaya Bay, the rural locality Ushakovskoye, and Cape Hawaii. The resulting images will be processed by special software that will allow us to obtain a three-dimensional model of the western territory, calculate the amount of work on the removal and disposal of man-made garbage from the island”.
The data collected during the expedition will be analyzed using machine learning technologies, computer vision, and neural networks. The specialists will receive information about the sex and age of the bears on Wrangel Island, their migration routes, and habitats of other Arctic animals. If positive results are obtained, the new method of aerial monitoring will be applied in other Arctic territories.