Testing methods for using high-resolution satellite imagery to monitor polar bear abundance and distribution

Michelle A. Larue, Seth Stapleton, Claire Porter, Stephen Atkinson, Todd Atwood, Markus Dyck, Nicolas Lecomte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


High-resolution satellite imagery is a promising tool for providing coarse information about polar species abundance and distribution, but current applications are limited. With polar bears (Ursus maritimus), the technique has only proven effective on landscapes with little topographic relief that are devoid of snow and ice, and time-consuming manual review of imagery is required to identify bears. Here, we evaluated mechanisms to further develop methods for satellite imagery by examining data from Rowley Island, Canada. We attempted to automate and expedite detection via a supervised spectral classification and image differencing to expedite image review. We also assessed what proportion of a region should be sampled to obtain reliable estimates of density and abundance. Although the spectral signature of polar bears differed from nontarget objects, these differences were insufficient to yield useful results via a supervised classification process. Conversely, automated image differencing - or subtracting one image from another - correctly identified nearly 90% of polar bear locations. This technique, however, also yielded false positives, suggesting that manual review will still be required to confirm polar bear locations. On Rowley Island, bear distribution approximated a Poisson distribution across a range of plot sizes, and resampling suggests that sampling >50% of the site facilitates reliable estimation of density (CV <15%). Satellite imagery may be an effective monitoring tool in certain areas, but large-scale applications remain limited because of the challenges in automation and the limited environments in which the method can be effectively applied. Improvements in resolution may expand opportunities for its future uses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)772-779
Number of pages8
JournalWildlife Society Bulletin
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Arctic
  • Ursus maritimus
  • abundance estimation
  • marine mammal
  • polar bear
  • remote sensing
  • resampling
  • satellite imagery


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