Climate change leads to more conflicts between humans and polar bears | Polarjournal
This is where the king of the Arctic is at home: on the sea ice. But it melts away under his paws and he is more and more often forced to search for food on land, which results increasingly in conflicts with humans. Photo: Julia Hager

The recent attack by a polar bear on two people in the small Inupiat community of Wales, Alaska, which ended extremely tragically,generated worldwide attention and was picked up by numerous news platforms, including regional ones. It was the first fatal attack in Alaska in 30 years. In the future, deteriorating living conditions for polar bears could lead to more frequent conflicts between polar bears and humans, a recent study predicts.

The kings of the Arctic don’t normally venture this far south on land. But normally they also find enough food on the Arctic sea ice. However, the world is no longer normal, certainly not for polar bears. Their habitat, the sea ice, is disappearing at a rapid pace, and their prey is becoming increasingly inaccessible. Therefore, it is becoming more common for bears to search for food on land. However, what they find there – birds, bird eggs, Arctic char, berries and more – is nowhere near as energy-rich as the fat seals. In human settlements they occasionally find something more nutritious, but this poses great risks for both sides.

In the latest incident in Wales, the westernmost point of the North American continent – just 80 kilometers away, on the other side of the Bering Strait, lies Russia – the two victims didn’t stand a chance. The mother and her one-year-old son were walking just a short distance in a snowstorm when the bear appeared in front of them out of nowhere. Attempts by other villagers to drive the bear away with shovels were unsuccessful. When one of the inhabitants finally shot the bear, there was no rescue for them.

A well-fed bear usually has little interest in humans. Attacks on humans are usually by emaciated, starving polar bears. Photo: Michael Wenger

Global warming and the accompanying decline in sea ice is causing more polar bears to overwinter on land for longer periods of time, not just the pregnant females. But they also spend more time on land during the summer. Inevitably, this also brings them closer to humans. The current study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, looked at the southern Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea over a 30-year period to determine the extent to which polar bears’ stay on land is related to sea ice extent, and uses the observations to make predictions about how many polar bears might spend summers on land by 2040.

The team of authors predicts that the risk of conflict between bears and humans is likely to increase as polar bear migration areas increasingly overlap with areas used by humans. In a previous study, it was found that the extreme hunger of polar bears is one of the main factors that determines whether or not a bear is a threat to humans. The expansion of commercial activities such as oil and gas exploration and production further exacerbates the situation.

In the current study, the researchers found that the decline in sea ice extent during the summer was associated with a greater percentage of polar bears both spending the summer on land and staying on land for longer periods of time. They estimate that by 2040, potentially half of the bears in the southern Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea will spend 100 days or more on land during the summer. So residents of the communities need to be prepared to do more to ensure the safety of both.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to study: Karyn D. Rode et al, Observed and forecasted changes in land use by polar bears in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, 1985-2040, Global Ecology and Conservation, Volume 40, 2022.

More on the subject:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
error: Content is protected !!
Share This