A Warming Arctic Could Make Rare Polar Bear Attacks More Common

Records dating back to the late-19th century show fewer than 100 polar bear attacks on humans, but the changing climate could make encounters with hungry bears more likely.

On September 6, 1595, two of his crewmates had been working ashore on an islet near Vaygach Island in the Kara Sea, when, “A great leane white beare came sodainly stealing out, and caught one of them fast by the necke.” The second sailor, “perceiving it to be a monstrous beare, cryed and sayd, Oh mate it is a beare! And therewith presently rose up and ran away.”

At least according to de Geer’s telling, the bear bit the man’s head to pieces as the rest of those ashore ran around in panic until a few lowered their muskets and charged toward the aggressor. This plan, it seems, it did not go well. The bear, “perceiving them to come towards her, fiercely and cruelly ran at them, and gat another of them out from their companie, which she tare into pieces, wherewith all the rest ran away.”

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That would have been plenty of polar bear hostility for one lifetime, but two years later, de Veer, Barents, and crew were shipwrecked on Novaya Zemlya. During the long, cold Arctic winter, they had to swing into action to protect themselves and the shelter they had built when, on more than one occasion, a “beare came bouldly toward the house.”

But while de Veer and colleagues experienced more than their fair share of unpleasant polar bear encounters, such attacks are very rare. However, as a new study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin suggests, altered conditions as a result of climate change may cause polar bear attacks to become more numerous.

James Wilder of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, along with colleagues from all five countries where polar bears are found (Canada, the US, Greenland, Norway, and Russia), authored the study. The group surveyed data from the years 1870 to 2014 and found records of just 73 polar bear attacks during that time, resulting in 20 human fatalities and 63 human injuries. To put that into perspective, Wilder said there have only been six known attacks in Alaska in 145 years.

“There are more brown and black bear attacks (than ones by polar bears) there every year,” Wilder said.

One major reason for such low figures, of course, is that people and polar bears rarely mix. De Veer and his shipmates were deep in polar bear territory, but very few people find themselves on the sea ice habitat of polar bears. While the majority of recorded attacks were in connection with field camps and people traveling across the landscape, approximately one quarter occurred in permanent Arctic communities. Even here, other factors are almost always involve, like a food source that attracted the bear to human settlement or the bear was scared by the presence of a human.

Those factors came into play in the 1983 case of Tommy Mutanen.

Mutanen was a homeless resident of Churchill, Manitoba — the self-styled “polar bear capital of the world” — who had been rummaging through the freezer of a badly fire-damaged motel and was heading off triumphantly, meat stuffed into his pockets, when he rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a young bear. Mutanen walked on crutches, and his immediate reaction was to use them to try to fight off the bear.

Nearby residents heard his screams as he was attacked; despite their best efforts, they were unable to stop the attack and were forced to shoot the bear, by which time Mutanen was dead.

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Mutanen’s is the only fatality to have struck Churchill since the town instituted its polar bear alert system, which among other things seeks to find and remove potential “problem” polar bears from the community, by tranquilizing them and placing them in a “polar bear jail” for 30 days before flying them back to the sea ice. Most bears learn to avoid the town centers.

“The ones who give you the most trouble, just as in our world, are teenagers,” Robert Buchanan, former president of Polar Bears International, explained. “Teenagers in the polar bear world usually don’t have enough nourishment or are not smart enough yet to understand the risk for them, but they are going to be the meanest and most aggressive.”

A lack of nourishment in particular is a key factor. Wilder and colleagues found that 61 percent of polar bears that attacked human were skinny or thin; and that is what gives the study’s authors reason to suspect that attacks are likely to become a more frequent occurrence.

“Under historical conditions, polar bears were exploiting a rich marine environment with plenty of food,” said Wilder.

Buchanan said, unlike blubber-coated seals, “there’s just not that much on a human being to interest them.”

But conditions in the Arctic are changing, putting humans at potentially great risk of attack.

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Arctic sea ice is diminishing in thickness and extent, melting earlier in the spring, and forming later in the fall as temperatures atop the globe rise at twice the rate as lower latitudes. That leaves polar bears with less time to hunt for food in a less-desirable environment, which could drive them into communities in search of food.

Wilder and colleagues note that 20 percent of reported attacks occurred in the short period between 2010 and 2014, which was characterized by historically low summer sea ice extent and long ice-free periods. However, they also stipulate that reporting and data sharing have improved in recent years, and that the time period involved is far too short to confirm that there is a statistically significant trend.
With the possibility of an uptick in human-polar bear interaction, communities on the front line could take steps to diminish the prospect of attacks.

“In Alaska, it has been successfully demonstrated that Tasers are very effective in deterring coastal brown bears from fish hatcheries, for example,” he said. “It’s been shown that once zapped, they take off for a couple of weeks, and if they return, they slink back cautiously and just the sound of a Taser is enough to make them take off again. Bear spray, too, is effective, when used correctly, even though there is a widespread belief that it isn’t.”

Other preemptive measures include establishing polar bear patrols, such as the one in Churchill, or setting up diversionary feeding sites by offering polar bears animal carcasses outside of town centers.

Although attacks are likely to remain rare, polar bears and humans will both be far better off by avoiding face-to-face contact.