Polar bears’ path to decline runs through Alaskan Village.
KAKTOVIK, Alaska — Come fall, polar bears are everywhere around this Arctic village, dozing on sand spits, roughhousing in the shallows and attracting hundreds of tourists who travel long distances to see them.
At night, the bears steal into town. They leave only reluctantly, chased off by the polar bear patrol with firecracker shells and spotlights.
On the surface, these bears might not seem like members of a species facing possible extinction. Scientists have counted up to 80 at a time in or near Kaktovik; many look healthy and plump, especially in early fall, when their presence overlaps with the Inupiat village’s whaling season.
But the bears that come to Kaktovik are climate refugees, on land because the sea ice they rely on for hunting seals is receding.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the ice cover is retreating at a pace that even the climate scientists who predicted the decline find startling.
Much of 2016 was warmer than normal, and the freeze-up came late. In November, the extent of Arctic sea ice was lower than ever recorded for that month. Though the average rate of ice growth was faster than normal for the month, over five days in mid-November the ice cover lost more than 19,000 square miles, a decline that the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado called “almost unprecedented” for that time of year.
In the southern Beaufort Sea, where Kaktovik’s 260 residents occupy 1 square mile on the northeast corner of Barter Island, sea ice loss has been especially precipitous.
The continuing loss of sea ice does not bode well for polar bears, whose existence depends on an ice cover that is rapidly thinning and melting as the climate warms. The largest of the bear subspecies and a powerful apex predator, the polar
bear became the poster animal for climate change.
Even as the polar bear’s symbolic role has raised awareness, some scientists say it has also oversimplified the bears’ plight and unwittingly opened the door to attacks by climate denialists.
“When you’re using it as a marketing tool and to bring in donations, there can be a tendency to lose the nuance in the message,” said Todd Atwood, a research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center.
Few scientists dispute that in the long run polar bears are in trouble, and experts have predicted the number will decrease with continued sea ice loss.