UW News

May 23, 2023

Q&A: UW polar bear expert appears in BBC-produced film about the Arctic

UW News

As temperatures rise in Seattle, people may cool off in an air-conditioned theater watching a movie about the Arctic. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth, and the changes there affect the entire planet. A new production, “Arctic: Our Frozen Planet,” narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, screens May 25 and May 27 at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

Eric Regehr, a researcher at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, appears in the film doing fieldwork on Wrangel Island, an island off the northeast coast of Russia that is home to the world’s highest concentration of polar bears. He and UW glaciologist Ian Joughin will field audience questions after screenings of the film, which focuses on the changing Arctic environment.

UW News asked Regehr a few questions about his research studying a population of polar bears that traverse the waters between Alaska and Russia.

two polar bears

An adult female polar bear and a cub stroll on Wrangel Island in fall 2017. Hundreds of Chukchi Sea polar bears spend the summer months on the island.Eric Regehr/University of Washington

When do you typically go to Wrangel Island, and how long do you spend there?

I’ve been leading polar bear research on Wrangel Island since 2016. I typically spend about one month there each fall, although the entire trip takes two months because the island is so remote. Unfortunately, everything has been on hold since early 2022 due to the political situation with Russia.

Who are your usual collaborators? What was it like to have a film crew with you?

The research project is a collaboration between the University of Washington, the UNESCO Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve, the U.S. government, and others. Having a film crew was fun. The only downside was that it meant keeping track of more people, to make sure they didn’t wander off and bump into a bear.

two researchers with wire box

Eric Regehr (left) and a Russian scientist place a “hair snare” trap by the coast on Wrangel Island. Polar bear fur comes off on the trap and provides samples for genetic analysis. Researchers use those samples to help monitor the health and movements of polar bears on Wrangel Island.BBC/SK Films

How did you come up with the technique, shown in the film, that uses a wire enclosure to collect polar bear fur for DNA analysis?

A colleague in Alaska developed the first “hair snare” traps for polar bears, and then engineers here at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory improved the design to make the traps lightweight and collapsible. I came up with the secret polar bear sauce (it’s really old fish, old cheese and walrus blubber) that we put inside the traps as a scent attractant.

What do you wish people knew about polar bears?

Actually, I’m constantly amazed by how much the public knows about polar bears — especially kids. It’s great. But if there was one thing I’d emphasize, it’s that polar bears are directly connected to the people that live and work in the Arctic. Climate warming is rapidly changing things for both bears and humans.

Regehr will answer questions from the audience after the morning and afternoon showings on Saturday, May 27. The Thursday, May 25, evening showing will feature a Q&A with UW glaciologist Ian Joughin. Admission is $5, or free for PacSci members.

Why is important to study polar bears on Wrangel Island?

The U.S. and Russia share a polar bear population, most of which ends up on Wrangel Island each fall to wait for the sea ice to reform. I’ve tagged a bear in Alaska in April, and then stood 10 feet from that same bear on Wrangel Island in October. Polar bears don’t recognize political boundaries, so it’s critical that the U.S. and Russia work together to conserve these awesome animals.


Previously, Regehr also worked on the BBC series Frozen Planet 2, narrated by David Attenborough, where he appears in episode 6. That series is available on Amazon Prime and Google TV.

Three ATVs on snowy landscape

In a scene from the film, Eric Regehr and colleagues traverse Wrangel Island as part of their research monitoring polar bears on this island in the Arctic Ocean.BBC/SK Films


For more information, contact Regehr at eregehr@uw.edu.