Polar bears currently outnumber the residents of a small town in Canada’s tundra, but that may change soon. Climate change has sped up the ice melting season in Churchill, Manitoba, a town of about 800 residents — and 900 polar bears.
Experts say the perennial thaw now begins in mid-June, a full 30 days earlier than three decades ago, which means the polar bears spend more time on land. It also means the bears are eating less and birthing smaller cubs that are not as likely to survive.
Scientists like Dr. Steve Amstrup of the conservation group Polar Bears International rank polar bears' weight on a 1-5 scale where one is starving and five is obese.
Amstrup says most of the bears he's seen this year are between 2 and 3, which he says indicates a bear that hasn’t eaten in a few months.
Polar bears rely on their fat reserves for parts of the year when they are not on the ice eating seals.
Polar bear populations can run as high as 25,000 in parts of the Arctic, but Amstrup said greenhouse gases created by humans threaten future generations of bears by threatening their ice. He said he likes to compare climate change’s effect on polar bears to the infamous Titanic ocean liner.
“[It] didn’t matter how many people were on the Titanic or how well they were doing,” he said. “When the Titanic slipped beneath the waves and they lost their habitat, that was it. So polar bears will also go away because of their dependence on sea ice.”
Churchill attracts the animals because it sits right on the coastline of Hudson Bay and polar bears follow the coast in search of ice floes.
So, less ice means more polar bears on land — and more possibilities to clash with local residents. Just this year, there were two bear attacks locally that injured three people.
Bob Windsor, a natural resource officer at Manitoba Conservation, sees about 30 to 40 polar bears a week come through Churchill. For the most part, the bears stay away from the residents, but some have not learned to be wary of humans.
When the bears do come, they come at night, said Windsor. Most of the time he is able to chase them away using an air horn and his truck, but sometimes the bears are in areas that are not accessible by car.
He recently had an incident with an abnormally aggressive bear who was unfazed by Windsor’s attempt to chase it away with his car. At one point, this “one-of-a-kind bear” jumped on the hood of his truck.
“I kind of thought he was coming through the windshield but fortunately it didn’t happen,” he said.
Windsor said the best thing to do if a person encounters a bear is to slowly back away.
“Look big, be loud,” he said. Anything that will distract the bear – a noise, throwing a shoe – can buy time and allow a person to escape.
Both Polar Bears International and Explore.org have live polar bear cameras to show people what the bears are up to.