It’s not all about climate change

The last few days a short video is going viral on the internet about a group of 50 Polar Bears invading the small Russian settlement of Beloesja Goeba on Novaya Zemlya.

 

Events like this are often immediately connected to climate change. Now I’ll be the last person to deny the bad effect climate change has on Polar Bears, but not everything can be blamed on this. In fact, I think trying to connect everything to the disappearing sea ice, might backfire, especially when it is proven wrong. This will give climate change deniers more ammunition in their (senseless) debate about whether climate change is real or not.

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Polar bears feeding on a seal carcass in the pack ice

In this case, I don’t think there is a direct link between the bears invading the village and climate change (though, there are likely indirect links). First of all, when you look at the bears in the video, you’ll see them being well-fed, healthy and fat. Not exactly what you’d expect with bears that are on the move because their sea ice has disappeared and they are hungry. You still see them eating, but that doesn’t mean they’re hungry. A Polar Bear will always eat when there is food available, as he never knows when a next meal will show up.

Another reason that makes me doubt climate change is the direct cause of this, is a look at the current ice charts. This ice chart (from today, 12 February), shows a good amount of ice on the eastern shores of Novaya Zemlya and a bit less around the southern tip of the islands, where the settlement is located. But still, there is ice not far away and well within reach of the bears. So if they wanted, they could easily reach the ice, and this ice has been there for most of the winter. Why don’t they go back to the ice, their favourite seal hunting habitat? Well, why leave a good food source (the garbage dump of Beloesja Goeba) for the uncertainty of hunting seals.

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Polar Bear on the pack ice

Then why are those bears there? There must be a reason they have left the ice for the settlement. In early winter, there was little ice around Novaya Zemlya. During November and December, the ice came and went, mainly around the east coast of the islands. Most likely these bears came on land in this period and got stuck when the ice moved away temporarily. In those days, they discovered the garbage dump of the settlement, where they dumped their food remains. Because of this food source, they stayed in the settlement in search for more food. And now, even though the ice isn’t too far away, the stay with the food they know. So, the best way to avoid problems like this is a decent waste management and not to throw any food remains on an open garbage dump.

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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