(UN)REALIABLE POLAR BEAR RADAR RUMOR: News report says Longyearbyen Camping getting AI-based system after fatal polar bear attack; (UPDATE: turns out the report was false)

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UPDATE 5 p.m.: The news article cited is inaccurate due to a misunderstanding by the radar programmer who spoke to a Longyearbyen resident, not a city official, about the possibility of putting the system at the campsite. Story below is updated with details.

A widely-published claim Longyearbyen Camping is getting a polar bear tracking system quickly ended up on the radar of the campsite’s owner and city officials – who said they knew nothing about it – but it turns out the story was “fake news.”

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A live webcam to observe polar bears near Churchill, Canada, is tested by a Polar Bears International worker in October. The organization is also testing a radar system in the small town in the Hudson Bay area that supposedly can differentiate between bears and other animals. Photo by Dave Allcorn / Polar Bears International.

The claim a radar system with artificial intelligence able to discern polar bears from other life forms will be installed next year at the campsite where a manager was killed when a bear attacked his tent in August, appeared in an article by Glorie Dickie, a freelance science and environmental journalist who has visited Svalbard to write a number of articles in recent years.

“After the attack, Longyearbyen authorities reached out to (Polar Bears International) about the radar,” Dickie wrote in response to an inquiry Tuesday when the campsite’s owner who said she’s heard nothing about the installation. “It will be deployed in Svalbard before anywhere else in the world.”

But it turns out that was a miscommunication involving a person helping develop the radar, Dickie stated in an online interview Wednesday evening. She also sent a message to her from the developer, Geoff York, senior conservation director for Polar Bears International.

“It turns out the information we had on a potential deployment in Svalbard was incorrect,” he stated. “Our partners at Spotter RF assumed the request they had was from the local government, which led us to assume it was in regard to the campground incident. Basically- Spotter RF reached out to us to see if we would loan some of our equipment to a Longyearbyen deployment, we agreed.”

“It turned out the request came from a resident of Longyearbyen – not the government or the owner of the campground. He wanted to set up the radar at his remote cabin, not the community. This is something we would be unlikely to do, both for cost, impact, and logistic challenges (power and internet connectivity). We were planning to follow up with government partners in Svalbard to see about potential for deployment elsewhere, but had not yet started that discussion. I awoke this AM to several emails from Norway, so am now trying to limit damage.”

The radar is being developed by Polar Bears International, which is “training” the artificial intelligence to recognize bears on the tundra near Churchhill, Canada, and be able to track their approach to the town during snowstorms and in the dark, Dickie reported in her original article, which has been updated to correct the misunderstanding.

“The radar can see through all of that,” Geoff York, the organization’s senior conservation director, told Dickie. “It’s one more way to keep communities or camps safe.”

Michelle van Dijk, owner on Longyearbyen Camping, stated in an online interview Wednesday several media organizations contacted her about the original article, much to her confusion. She said “it’ll be great” if an effective radar system is installed, but has no idea if it can do what its developers claim.

“I don’t know how this system works, what the range of it is, and how it can tell reindeer from polar bears,” she said. “But it will be great if it does.”

The system developed with the Hudson Bay area of Canada in mind, where polar bears are a far more common presence near human settlements in-between periods of migrating onto the sea ice to hunt. Dijk said the behavior of bears differs in Svalbard in that there isn’t a significant migrating population involving Longyearbyen (although at least one notable female bear makes visits every year and numerous others are typically observed – including one that’s been lingering in Adventdalen the past few days).

Also, while bears have ventured near the campsite during its 44-year history, the attack this summer was the first time a bear actually set foot on the property. The lack of encounters meant there was no tripwire or other alarm system at the campsite – although one was scheduled to be installed this spring until the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans – and no 24-hour guard on-duty. The lack of such precautions resulted in plenty of criticism and questions about the campsite’s existence following the attack.