At least a dozen polar bears that besieged a remote Russian weather station on an island in the Kara Sea during the first two weeks of September prompted a few media pundits to suggest that loss of summer sea ice due to global warming may be forcing polar bears to hunt humans for food. Headlines like the one below, from the IB Times, fueled such notions:
Eye-catching though such headlines might be, this is more sensationalism than reality. These particular bears have been onshore since early July this year (about the time some Western Hudson Bay bears come ashore) and sea ice conditions have been similar this time of year since 2007. In other words, despite what some writers are claiming, sea ice conditions this year are nothing new.
A few bears usually visit this station each summer when the sea ice leaves – but this year there were more than a dozen bears rather than a few. My opinion as a scientist is that more bears – more bears that are increasingly unafraid of people – are likely the cause of the sudden increase in numbers of bears being a problem at this location. Note that of the 14 bears, four were cubs, which is a good crop of youngsters.
In addition, hunting polar bears is banned in Russia and this incident shows to what lengths people must go to avoid killing them – the population must be booming and may be higher yet than the last population count (in 2013) of about 3,200 bears. More bears means more competition for food, which means more assertive bears get the goods. None of these bears were described as thin or starving – see more photos, like the one below, from the Russian weather station (Daily Mail, 18 September 2016).
While polar bears are always on the look-out for food (and thus always a potential threat to humans), they are most apt to be truly dangerous in winter (when they are at their lowest body weight) and in spring if seals are in short supply.
That’s why my new polar bear attack thriller EATEN is set in early spring, in a year when seals happen to be scarce. Imagine the damage those Russian polar bears could have done if they’d been truly desperate for food – a mere door or window would not have stopped them.
Imagine if dozens of truly ravenous polar bears stalk and ambush people across a great frozen landscape, taking them by complete surprise because no one considers a bear attack in spring to be a real possibility. What if dozens of people have been killed and eaten by hungry polar bears and there is no end in sight? That is the premise of EATEN – a science-based novel set in Newfoundland that will scare your pants off.
This is a great read for fall, when polar bear encounter stories abound. Hopefully the reports this year won’t include the kind of serious mauling that happened in 2003.
Most bears this time of year are not blood-thirsty killers, but that doesn’t mean none of them are – or that many of them would be in another time or circumstance. Some are more persistent or aggressive than others.
September is not a time of many polar bear attacks but one did occur in 2003. The details will make your hair stand on end: fast asleep in the early morning, a bear entered the tent of an Nunavut hunting guide. The description of that attack is a reminder that when polar bears attack with intent to kill, they go for the head:
“After dragging Shaw a few feet, the polar bear stopped, put his back paw on Shaw’s back, and then fit Shaw’s head between his fangs.
“And then he ripped [my scalp] like paper. It sounded like paper ripping,” Shaw remembers.”
Instead of climbing onto the back of your sailboat at the height of summer and departing at the sound of your voice, what if a hungry polar bear breaks your bedroom window at 2 a.m. in the dead of winter and comes at you relentlessly?
Instead of a young male bear stalking you through the streets in the early hours of dawn after a long night of Halloween partying, what if a fully mature, 1000 pound male ambushes you from the side of your garage as you head to your car to pick up groceries for an Easter feast?
Instead of hearing the menacing sound of a polar bear approaching your tent in mid-April and finally succeeding in getting away the shot that sends the bear packing, what if the shotgun fails and all you have for defense are your bare hands?