Expedition “Umka-2022” completed on Wrangel Island

The joint complex expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the High Command of the Navy “Umka-2022” has ended, the key event of which was the “Polar bear census” – aerial monitoring of polar bears using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Specialists of the Russian Geographical Society, Roszapovedtsentr of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, employees of the Wrangel Island nature reserve, ecologists of the autonomous non-profit organizations Zapovedny Mir and Ecofactor determined the number of the Chukchi-Alaska population of polar bears on Wrangel Island and assessed the ecological state of the northernmost protected areas of Russia.

Global warming and man-made impacts are helping to reduce the area of ​​ice cover in the Arctic, a habitual habitat for polar bears. The largest land predators are forced to migrate and look for new food sources. Conducting a count of polar bears and monitoring the state of predators and their habitats is the main task of the Polar Bear Census as part of the Umka-2022 expedition. The research center was the Wrangel Island nature reserve in Chukotka, one of the main “maternity hospitals” for the polar bear. The isolation of the territory, mountain ranges occupying two-thirds of the island’s surface, and extensive seal and walrus rookeries (the food base of the polar predator) are favorable conditions for raising future offspring.

— The Polar Bear Census was organized by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, Roszapovedtsentr and ANO “Zapovedny Mir” within the framework of the federal project “Conservation of biological diversity and development of ecological tourism.” The polar bear is one of 13 wildlife objects included in the list of priority species of the federal project. For it, a conservation strategy and a road map of measures for the conservation of the species have been developed and approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia. Monitoring and recording the number of all polar bear populations, including in key habitats, in specially protected natural areas, is one of the key areas of the road map, — Olga Krever, Deputy Director of Roszapovedtsentr of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, noted. – In the future, the new method of aerial monitoring will be used in other regions of the Arctic zone of Russia.

The fast movements 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. To date, 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, specialists used a new method of aerial monitoring using long-range UAVs. Drones allow you to safely and quickly collect a large amount of data on the abundance, spatial distribution, and sex and age composition of the studied animals.

— Wrangel Island became the first territory where a new method of counting polar bears using drones was tested. Basically, we carry out monitoring by ground methods: we allocate model areas and conduct observation while moving on ATVs, — Alexander Gruzdev, director of the Wrangel Island nature reserve, said. – For three weeks, the expedition members, using aerial reconnaissance, examined almost the entire area of ​​the island, including mountainous areas. At the moment, 358 bears have been recorded. But the total 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 in order to assess the population dynamics and the state of the predator group on the island, as well as changes in its habitat conditions.

UAVs operate offline for up to 10 hours and can withstand temperature fluctuations from -30 to +40 °C. They are launched by a catapult and follow a pre-planned route grid. During the expedition, more than 22 thousand photographs of the fauna of the Arctic island were taken from a height of 200–300 m: polar bears, musk oxen, walruses, seals, seals, whales and birds.

— The island is divided into explored areas, the area of ​​which is covered by a grid of routes — tacks — Ilya Chernook, a member of the expedition, development director of ANO Ecological Center Ecofactor, shared his opinion. – Such a system allows you to survey the entire territory with parallel lines. The total length of the routes was 8317 km. We also managed to create a detailed mapping of the places where bears were found with accurate reference to geographic coordinates and time of detection.

The harsh weather conditions of the Arctic allow shooting only on clear days with calm weather. Complicate the work of the UAV and the mountain ranges of the island, reaching a height of more than 1000 m. 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 1,000 km in a day. The task of the media group is to check the collected data from the ground and supplement them, – said the head of the media group of the expedition Leonid Kruglov. – 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 drone photographs. Also, our film crew managed to conduct video surveillance of the bear, which was hiding from the wind in the building of the former kindergarten in the village of Ushakovskoye.

An important direction of the expedition was the assessment of the current ecological state of Wrangel Island. Prior to the organization of the state nature reserve in 1976, a trading post and a weather station were built here, a reindeer-breeding state farm was organized, an auxiliary military airfield and an air defense base were built. More than a hundred tons of fuels and lubricants, machinery and equipment were imported annually, which, due to the high cost of liquidation and removal, remained on the island. Technogenic waste causes significant damage to the ecosystem of the reserve, which has an exceptional biodiversity for the Arctic.

— We managed to collect 130 samples of river and sea water, snow, soil and biota — samples of the liver, fat, feathers and hair of dead animals and birds — to analyze the content of the main hazardous pollutants and heavy metals, — said environmentalist of the Russian Geographical Society, senior researcher at the environmental monitoring laboratory Maria Pogozheva. – With the help of UAVs and quadrocopters, areas with a high degree of anthropogenic load were filmed: Rogers and Doubtful bays, the village of Ushakovskoye and Cape Hawaii. The resulting images will be processed by special software, which will make it possible to obtain a three-dimensional model of the western territory, calculate the amount of work for the removal and disposal of man-made waste from the island.

The data collected during the expedition will be analyzed using machine learning technologies, computer vision and neural networks. Specialists will receive information about the age and sex composition of bears on Wrangel Island, their migration routes and habitats of other Arctic animals. Upon receipt of positive results, the new method of aerial monitoring will be applied in other Arctic territories.

Natalia Sadovskikh

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