A combination of dwindling sea ice and an all-you-can-eat-buffet of garbage may be drawing a massive influx of polar bears to towns on a Russian archipelago. It’s a worst-case scenario for both the polar bears and people because proximity increases the potential for conflict.
At least 52 polar bears have visited the village of Belushya Guba on the Novaya Zemlya islands in northern Russia over the past few months, The Washington Post reports. The bears are getting into homes and office buildings, prompting officials to declare a state of emergency. Videos uncovered by The Guardian that purport to show the bear invasion show them chowing down at the local dump. It’s exactly the behavior experts expect given the easy access to garbage in the town and the shrinking sea ice where polar bears would typically hunt. It’s a preview of what’s to come as climate change continues to reduce sea ice and people keep expanding into a thawing Arctic.
To be clear, polar bear attacks on people have historically been fairly rare, says Geoff York, senior director of conservation at the nonprofit Polar Bears International. “Polar bears see people, people see polar bears, everybody walks away,” he says. But the worry is that when bears and people live close together, the risk of conflict increases. And human food is a major draw to bears of all sorts: that’s why campgrounds in regions with black and brown bears tell campers to pack away food and throw trash into bear-proof containers.
For these polar bears, other sources of food are hard to come by right now. To hunt seals, polar bears need sea ice. So at this time of year, you wouldn’t normally expect to see polar bears on land, according to Ian Stirling, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta who’s been working with polar bears for more than 45 years. This year, the sea ice hasn’t formed on the western side of Novaya Zemlya, and the bears can’t hunt as they normally would. “That pretty well tells the story,” Stirling says. “Climate warming is what’s pushing the bears on land on the western side.”
But the story’s also more complicated than starving polar bears searching for food wherever they can find it. The video clips claiming to show Novaya Zemlya’s furry new residents show bears that are clearly finding enough to eat, according to Stirling and Douglas Clark, an associate professor and research chair at the University of Saskatchewan. “All of the bears are chubby,” says Clark, who specializes in polar bear and human conflicts.
That’s where the garbage comes in. After all, it’s an easy calorie source for bears, Clark says. That is, of course, until the bears learn bad habits that put them in conflict with humans, like strolling into homes. “Bears nutritionally do very well on garbage, but then they end up getting shot,” Clark says. The bears probably won’t leave until they’ve eaten everything they can, according to Anatoly Kochnev, a senior scientist studying mammal ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. It’s hard work for a polar bear to catch a seal, Kochnev says in an email to The Verge. “And here is such a luxurious restaurant!”
The worry is that bears tend to return to the areas where they’ve fed successfully in the past, particularly during the years they spent as cubs. If they learned there was an all-you-can-eat garbage buffet at the local dump, that’s where they’ll go back. “Bears are very traditional,” Stirling says. “They always remember places where there was something to eat, whether it’s a garbage dump or a dead whale.”
Kochnev says that getting rid of all the trash in the towns on Novaya Zemlya will be key. “You need to destroy everything that attracts polar bears,” he says. That’s what the town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, did. Churchill is a popular polar bear stomping ground, and in the mid-2000s, the town closed the local dump and shut the trash away in a warehouse that became known as the Alcatraz of garbage.
In the short term, even fencing off the Russian dump with an electric fence could help, says Clark. (He adds that he feels for the people tasked with managing Novaya Zemlya’s influx of polar bears. “It’s a really, really hard job right now, and everybody is looking at them.”) Kochnev also recommends setting up patrols to chase away the bears that enter town. These kinds of preventative measures will be key over the long run, he says. “Otherwise, everyone will suffer,” he says — both people and bears.
The bears would likely leave town if the sea ice forms up in March, Stirling says, but they’ll likely be back in Novaya Zemlya and elsewhere as sea ice continues to dwindle. The situation on Novaya Zemlya is a preview of what’s to come as the climate continues to warm and people push into a thawing Arctic, he says. “What we’re seeing there in Novaya Zemlya is a harbinger of the future.”