Those dozens of polar bears invading and terrorizing a small Russian island town to the east with some remarkably similar qualities to Longyearbyen are going to have plenty of energy to swim here if so inclined when they finish their feast. But while photos of the bears are making for lively local social media fodder, don’t expect them to make the long swim here – or, more importantly, those already in the area – to stage a similar occupation.
Svalbard’s polar bears are suffering the same problem as their neighbors in that climate change has severely depleted the sea ice where they traditionally hunt, forcing them to search in sometimes unprecedented ways for other food sources, said Jon Aars, a polar bear expert with the Norwegian Polar Institute for the past 15 years. But the bears in Russia are feasting on a practically all-you-can-eat-buffet of garbage at an outdoor dump that doesn’t exist in any Svalbard settlements.
“They have a big source of food and waste, so I don’t think you would see anything like that in Svalbard,” he said.
Svalbard’s polar bears are resorting to climbing dangerous cliffs to raid eggs from seabird nests, eating everything on land from grass to the carcasses of dolphins trapped here by unusual sea ice patterns, and showing strong resistance to being intimated away from cabins and other human-occupied areas away from settlements. But that’s just a nibble compared to what’s happening on that Russian island.
More than 50 polar bears have visited the 560-person military settlement of Belushya Guba on the western side of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in recent months. Military patrols have been deployed since December, and the situation is so bad now a state of emergency has been declared as experts have been deployed to sedate and move the animals.
“There’s never been such a mass invasion of polar bears,” said Zhigansha Musin, the head of the local administration, told reporters. “The animals are literally chasing people and are even entering the entrances of residential buildings.”
Alexander Minayev, the region’s deputy head, told The Guardian: “People are scared, and afraid to leave their homes. Parents are unwilling to let their children go to school or nursery.”
As with Svalbard, polar bears are a protected species and therefore Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources has refused to allow the shooting of the most aggressive polar bears that have attacked people.
A major concern of officials is the bears will now habitually return to the settlement unless it gets rids of its outdoor trash dumps, similar to what a Canadian town was forced to do in the mid-2000s. Experts say the Russian bears are likely to leave at least for now if the sea ice forms sufficiently in the coming weeks to allow hunting.