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Resupply Helps Trapped Arctic Scientists Scare Off Polar Bear “Siege”

With sea ice cover at record lows, polar bear conflict with humans becomes more common

Dwindling sea ice in the Arctic threatens polar bears and causes increased conflict with humans. (Wikicommons)
smithsonian.com

As polar bear defense systems go, flare guns and dogs seem wholly inadequate. Yet, for a team of beleaguered Russian scientists, these reinforcements could not come soon enough.

For two weeks, polar bears have encircled the the Troynoy Island weather station, located in the Kara Sea north of Siberia, trapping five scientists inside. The Russian news agency TASS initially reported that supplies would not arrive for another month, but in a stroke of good fortune, a passing ship delivered the flares and dogs by helicopter on Wednesday.

"A helicopter that took off from the Akademik Treshnikov expedition vessel of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring has delivered three puppies and pyrotechnical devices to the station to scare the bears away", Vassiliy Shevchenko, the head of the Sevgidromet State Monitoring Network that owns the station, told TASS. The Soviet Union outlawed polar bear hunting in 1957, and it is still illegal to kill the IUCN-listed vulnerable species, so flares and dogs are the scientists’ best defense against the bears.

The weather station was forced to cease operations as up to ten adult polar bears, including four females with cubs, besieged the building. The station’s head, Vadim Plotnikov told TASS that a female bear was sleeping under the station’s windows and added that the bears had killed one of their two guard dogs.

The station’s personnel had been advised to “use extreme caution” and remain inside except for the most serious circumstances, Alec Luhn and Elle Hunt report for The Guardian.

The Kara Sea falls within the polar bear home range, so their presence on Troynoy Island is not uncommon, Shevchenko told TASS. But Sevgidromet spokeswoman Yelena Novikova told Luhn and Hunt that such a large number of bears was “not standard.” She said the bears’ aggressive behavior was related to climate change and the ongoing reduction in sea ice.

Physicists from the Alfred Wegener Institute predicted that sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean could approach record lows this summer, and the lack of ice seems to have played a role on Troynoy Island.

“The bears usually go to other islands, but this year they didn’t,” Novikova said. “The ice receded quickly and the bears didn’t have time to swim to other islands.”

Troynoy Island is not the first station to encounter aggressive polar bears. Last August, scientists on Vaygach Island fended off hostile bears with rubber bullets and flare pistols. One of the researchers at the station told The Siberian Times at the time, “They sleep near the houses. Two of them walk together. They are aggressive. Recently they fought together near our house.”

For now, the scientists hope the delivery of flares and dogs will help scare off the polar bears as they resume monitoring operations.

About Aaron Sidder

Aaron Sidder is an ecologist and a freelance science writer based in Denver, CO. He is a former AAAS Mass Media Fellow whose work has appeared National Geographic and Eos.

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