According to records compiled by James Wilder, a US Forest Service biologist, there were only 20 fatal polar bear attacks (out of 73 total attacks) between 1870 and 2014.
That’s what the 14 June 2016 account in the Anchorage Daily News says (“Sea ice has been keeping polar bears and humans apart — until now”). But I think it’s kind of delusional to suggest that a list of recorded attacks, spanning 145 years throughout the Arctic (including Russia), have captured more than a fraction of all actual polar bear attacks – given that many Arctic communities didn’t have reliable communications in the 1970s (let alone the 1870s). How about all the Inuit and Siberian hunters over the years who failed to return home because they were killed and eaten by a polar bear – unbeknownst to anyone?
Wilder presents these numbers as a basis for saying how concerned he is that a longer open-water season in the Arctic could increase the number of attacks by polar bears – and he’s right, that’s a valid concern now that the global population of bears is so high. Many polar bears plus people in a confined area is never a comfortable situation, as the people of Churchill, Manitoba have learned.
But declining sea ice is not the only scenario that could lead to an onslaught of hungry bears and a slew of fatal attacks, as my new science-based novel EATEN highlights. The truth is that if polar bears don’t get enough food in the spring – for any reason – the ice off the beaches of Arctic communities gives polar bears easy access to human prey. If that happens, people had better be prepared – because doors and windows won’t necessarily stop a determined polar bear.
Posted in Polar bear attacks, Sea ice habitat
Tagged attacks, De Veer, Eaten, fatal polar bear attacks, killer, man-eaters, polar bear, population size, sea ice, William Barents
Here are summaries of my “Polar bears in winter” series. It’s an interesting recap of what polar bears do over the unimaginably cold and dark months of an Arctic winter.
Posted in History, Life History, Polar bear attacks
Tagged Arctic winteric, Barents, birth, body condition, De Veer, polar bear, polar bear attacks, polar bears in winter, shelter dens, survival, winter darkness
As a follow-up to my previous post on polar bears giving birth (December is polar bear nativity month) I thought I’d continue the generalized theme of “polar bears in winter.”
While we don’t really know for sure what non-pregnant polar bears do during the depth of the Arctic winter, we have bits of evidence – some from modern hunters and polar bear researchers but also from Arctic explorers. One explorer in particular comes to mind: William Barents [Willem Barentsz] of Holland, who attempted to reach China via the Arctic Northeast Passage in the late 16th century. On their third voyage (1596-1597), Barents and his crew were forced to spend the winter on the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya (latitude 760N, see Fig. 1) when their ship became trapped in the sea ice. Crew member Gerrit De Veer (1609) kept a journal account of the long, horrifying winter they spent on shore, in a shelter they built with materials salvaged from the ship. They called their winter home Behouden Huys (“the saved house”).
Figure 1. Location of Novaya Zemlya, in the Barents Sea. On the map at left (a), the black square marks the location of Behouden Huys, the over-winter home of William Barents and his crew (1596-97) on Novaya Zemlya (the “track of boats” noted marks the return journey of Barents in the summer of 1597). This is modified from Zeeberg et al. (2002:331). The map on the right is from Wikipedia, for perspective. click to enlarge.
An English translation of De Veer’s journal is now available online and it offers a fascinating glimpse of what it meant to live through that long dark winter under almost-constant fear of attack by polar bears. The Dutchmen were plagued by polar bears almost the entire time they were on Novaya Zemlya (see Fig. 2). De Veer’s notes on these encounters provide a unique perspective on polar bear activities over the Arctic winter – ironically, it is not the havoc the bears caused that provides the most important clue but rather, the timing of when they left Barents and his crew alone.
Figure 2. An engraving from De Veer’s journal conveys the struggle the crew faced in warding off polar bears during their winter stay at Novaya Zemlya. The bears not only stalked and attacked the crew, they got into the food stores on the ship.
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