A combination of staggering sea ice and an all-you-can-eat garbage buffet can draw a massive influx of polar bears into cities on a Russian archipelago. It is a worst case scenario for both the polar bears and the people, because the neighborhood increases the risk of conflicts.
At least 52 polar bears have visited the village of Belushya Guba on the Novaya Zemlya Islands in northern Russia in recent months, Washington Post reports. The bears enter the home and office buildings, which causes officials to declare an emergency. Videos Discovered by The Guardian aimed at showing the bear invasion shows that they are hugging at the local dump. That's exactly what the behavior experts expect in terms of easy access to garbage in the city and shrinking sea ice where polar bears would normally hunt. It is a preview of what is to come as climate change continues to reduce sea ice and people continue to expand into a thawing of the Arctic.
To be clear, polar bear attacks on humans have historically been rather rare, says Geoff York, senior conservation officer at nonprofit Polar Bears International. "Polar bears see people, people see polar bears, everyone goes away," he says. But worry is that when bears and people live close together, the risk of conflicts increases. And human food is a big attraction to bears of all kinds: that's why campsites in regions with black and brown bears tell campers to unpack food and throw away garbage in bear-safe containers.
For these polar bears, other food sources are hard to come by right now. In order to hunt seals need polar bears sea ice. So at this time of year you would not normally expect to see polar bears on land, according to Ian Stirling, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta who has been working with polar bears for more than 45 years. This year, the ice has not been formed on the western side of Novaya Zemlya, and the bear cannot hunt as they normally would. "It tells the story pretty well," says Stirling. "Climate warming is what drives the bears on land on the west side."
But the story is also more complicated than starving polar bears looking for food wherever they can find it. The video clips claiming to show Novaya Zemlya's prudent new residents show bears that clearly find enough to eat, according to Stirling and Douglas Clark, a lecturer and research chair at the University of Saskatchewan. "All the bears are plump," Clark says, specializing in polar bears and human conflicts.
That's where the garbage comes in. It's a light source of calories for bears, Clark says. It is of course until the bears learn bad habits that conflict with people, like walking in homes. "Bears nourishes it well on rubbish, but then they get shot," Clark says. The bears will probably not go until they have eaten everything they can, according to Anatoly Kochnev, a senior researcher studying mammalian ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences. It is difficult for a polar bear to get a seal, says Kochnev in an email to The Verge . "And here is such a luxurious restaurant!"
Concerned is that bears tend to return to the areas where they have successfully fed earlier, especially in the years they spent as kids. If they learned it was an all-you-can-eat soup buffet at the local dump, that's where they will go back. "Bears are very traditional," says Stirling. "They always remember places where there was something to eat, whether it's a dump or a dead whale".
Kochnev says it is important to get rid of all the rubbish in the cities of Novaya Zemlya. "You have to destroy everything that attracts polar bears," he says. That's what Churchill in Manitoba, Canada did. Churchill is a popular polar bear that tampers the ground and in the mid-2000s the city closed the local dump and closed the garbage in a warehouse known as Alcatraz by garbage.
In the short term, closing Russian dumping with an electric fence can also help, Clark says. (He adds that he feels for those people who are responsible for managing Novaya Zemlya's influx of polar bears. "It's a real, really hard job right now, and everyone is watching them.") Kochnev also recommends setting up patrols for to chase away the bears that go into town. Such preventive measures will be important in the long term, he says. "Otherwise, everyone will suffer," he says ̵
The bears would probably leave the city if the sea ice formed in March, Stirling says, but they will probably be back in Novaya Zemlya and elsewhere, as the sea ice continues to decline. The situation at Novaya Zemlya is a preview of what is to come when the climate continues to warm and people are pushing into a thawing of the Arctic, he says. "What we see in Novaya Zemlya is a harbinger of the future."