Polar Bears Appear Where They Never Were Before

The big predators have been rummaging through science camps at the top of Greenland's ice sheet far inland, where they were never expected. Is climate change driving them?

Ryan Kunz was sleeping in his tent on the ice when the polar bear wandered into camp. At 10,500 feet high, in the middle of the Greenland Ice Sheet more than 200 miles from the nearest coast, the remote U.S. scientific research station was about the last place anyone expected one of these sea ice-dwelling animals to be.

Yet here it was, lumbering around the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Summit Station, the highest-altitude, northernmost science operation in the Arctic, where key meteorology and other research is conducted. Kunz, a carpenter from Florida, was one of the half-dozen or so workers sleeping in “Tent City”—a collection of orange domes atop snow glinting in the June 24-hour sunlight. It was 5:13 a.m.

“I woke up and people were screaming at us that there was a bear,” Kunz recalls. “It didn’t make sense to me there was a bear there.”

Never before had a polar bear been seen this far up the ice sheet, and people had generally assumed it wasn’t possible. Thinking it was perhaps some sort of drill, he and the other Tent City residents began walking casually toward the Big House, a hard-sided building up on stilts.

“We come around the corner and there is a polar bear maybe 30 to 50 feet away, and it was coming at us,” says Kunz. “That definitely picked up our speed!”

The standoff lasted 36 hours. Most of the 31 staff onsite hunkered indoors, while a few drove loud machinery around the site to repel the bear. Some tried launching food far off onto the ice in an effort to lure it away. Mahi mahi was the bear’s favorite, according to the general consensus of people who watched as it roamed the station: investigating the outhouse, poking its nose into tents, and trying to get into the garbage throughout that day, night and into the next day.

The female bear’s incredible journey to the top of the Northern Hemisphere’s largest ice sheet last month [June 13-14] may have set a record for a polar bear climb, says polar bear expert Andrew Derocher. While the bears, whose normal habitat is sea ice, do sometimes travel inland and cross glaciers, “I can’t imagine anywhere else that a bear could get that high off the ground,” says Derocher, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, Canada, and scientific advisor to Polar Bears International. “It’s such a weird thing, I mean here’s an animal that spends its whole life at sea level.”

But climate change is decimating polar bears’ sea ice habitat across the Arctic, leading to an International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List classification as “vulnerable.” With bears forced to venture afield for food at the same time that humans increasingly venture north for resources and recreation, Derocher and others say such encounters are likely to increase.

A Trio of Dangerous Incidents

Indeed, this was the third time in the past three years that a polar bear has made its way to a science station deep in the Greenland Ice Sheet interior. Twice before, one had been seen at a Danish ice coring site 8,800 feet up, including one just a few weeks earlier.

Fortunately, no people were hurt in any of those incidents. But, while seals are the bears’ normal diet, they have been known to prey on humans. Earlier this month, one fatally mauled a man who was on an outing with his children in western Hudson Bay, Canada. Two years ago, scientists on a remote Russian Arctic island were trapped in their cabin for days by a pack of polar bears that ate one of their dogs.

This polar bear rummaged through the Summit Station at the top of Greenland this summer, where the animals had never been seen before.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAT SMITH

A study released last year analyzed reported polar bear attacks on humans across the Arctic between 1870 and 2014, and tallied 73 confirmed attacks, with 20 deaths. The study concluded that, while attacks on humans were historically rare, the greatest number took place in 2010-2014—years with exceedingly low summer sea ice, which is rapidly declining due to climate change. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent this June was the fourth lowest since satellite observations began in 1981.

Polar bears are coming into communities more often these days, says Kristin Laidre, a marine biologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, and an authority on polar bear populations in Greenland. “It’s happening all over the Arctic, and it’s something that’s only going to be an increasing problem as we continue to lose sea ice,” she says.

While it’s too soon to tell whether the three recent polar bear visits high in the ice sheet’s interior mean such epic treks will become more common, Laidre says, “I think as we move forward towards this ice-free Arctic, bears are going to end up places they wouldn’t prefer to be.”

“It Looked So Cute”

As for the polar bear’s visit to Summit Station, it ended happily for everyone but the bear. A sharpshooter flown in from Iceland killed it, after warning shots failed to drive it away.

For now, Tent City will stand empty, with everyone crowding into the facility’s two indoor dormitories. A “bear spotter” from New Zealand has been bought in to patrol at night. Safety practices at other NSF research sites in known bear country, such as Alaska, will now be instituted up on the ice sheet, says Jennifer Mercer, program manager for Arctic research and support.

“It is common for researchers to carry weapons as well as bear deterrents, such as bear spray, air horns, and things like that,” says Mercer. “The difference at Summit Station is that it is extremely far inland. We’ve never had a bear enter the station before.”

Kunz said he was only scared after the fact, when he read about polar bears’ predatory behavior.

“It looked so cute. It was like the cutest thing in the world,” he says. “But it definitely needed some food. It was a young female, a long way from where it needed to be.”

Lead Image: Polar bears are normally seen along the Arctic coasts or on ocean ice, like here along the Hudson Bay. But recently, things have changed.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIAS BREITER, MINDEN PICTURES/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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