Article image

Radar imaging will help protect polar bears from human disturbances

Scientists are testing new radar technology in an effort to protect one of the Arctic’s most iconic creatures: the polar bear. 

A collaborative effort between Simon Fraser University, Brigham Young University, and Polar Bears International has shown promising results in using advanced radar technology to detect the nearly invisible dens of polar bears buried beneath the snow.

Study objective

By enhancing the tools available to locate these dens, there’s hope to bolster conservation efforts, especially for mother polar bears and their cubs. 

These efforts come at a critical time. Polar bear cubs, born blind and with only a light layer of fur, remain in these winter dens under their mother’s protection. 

The period they spend denning is when they are most vulnerable. By spring, they have grown sufficiently to brave the Arctic’s severe conditions. Yet, disturbances during their denning can be fatal.

The team used ARTEMIS Inc. – an advanced imaging system that capitalizes on Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) – to conduct a pilot study in Churchill, Manitoba. 

What the researchers learned 

Compared to the current industry-standard method, the radar technology increased den detection by over 20 percent with an accuracy rate of 66 percent. This is a significant leap from the aerial Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) system’s accuracy rate of 45 percent.

“Our airborne imaging radar system has multi-band, interferometric, and polarization capabilities at microwave frequencies able to penetrate snow,” said SFU Professor Bernhard Rabus.

“The system can ‘see’ both the top snow surface, the den roof surface and inside the den cavity.”

“While our method is still in its research and testing phase, an operational version is expected to be able to extrapolate from the radar signatures of live bears in the open, combined with computer modeled den cavity radar signatures, to develop a robust match filter detection for airborne multi-channel SAR data to detect polar bears reliably inside their dens.”

Advantages of SAR

The advantages of SAR over the FLIR system are numerous. SAR functions efficiently regardless of temperature or weather, a significant advantage given the often harsh and unpredictable Arctic conditions. 

As industries continue to expand into the Arctic region, the need for precise den detection tools is urgent. Disturbances during the denning period are particularly detrimental. 

Study implications 

The Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear subpopulation experienced a 40 percent decline from 2000-2010, and the inability of mother bears to successfully rear cubs was a contributing factor.

“This report advances Synthetic Aperture Radar as a promising method for polar bear den detection, which is critical for protecting polar bears alongside human activity,” said Geoff York, senior director of research and policy at Polar Bears International. 

“Brigham Young University and Simon Fraser University have been invaluable research partners, and we’re excited about the possibility of SAR in the Arctic as it performs well in all weather conditions.”

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day