Five Russian scientists at a remote weather station north of Siberia have finally driven away a pack polar bears that had been laying siege to their outpost over the past two weeks, according to Russian news agency TASS.
The team was conducting observations on the island of Troynoy in the northern Kara Sea when a group of over a dozen polar bears – ten adult bears and four cubs – arrived and kept the researchers trapped inside their weather station for two weeks. “A female bear has been sleeping under the station’s windows since Saturday night. It’s dangerous to go out as we have run short of any means to scare off the predators,” says Vadim Plotnikov in an alert to Russia’s Northern Meteorological Department
Plotnikov and his colleagues were initially told that they’d be on their own for another month, in wait for the next expedition vessel to arrive with cargo, but as luck would have it, the Akademik Tryoshnikov, flagship of the Russian research expedition fleet, was sailing nearby the island of Troynoy and was able to make a stop to deliver flares to scare away the bears, as well as three dogs.
Since 1957, Russia, and before it, the Soviet Union, has enforced a ban against killing or hunting polar bears, thus leaving workers in the north such as the besieged scientists to fend off the animals by other means. But researchers say that the number of bears aggressively approaching human settlements has increased over recent years due to reductions in sea ice caused by climate change. “The bears usually go to other islands, but this year they didn’t. The ice receded quickly and the bears didn’t have time to swim to other islands,” says Yelena Novikova of the Sevgidromet state monitoring network speaking to the Guardian. “There’s no food on [Troynoy] island, so they came up to the station.”
The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center just released its data showing that ice coverage in the Arctic is nearing record lows, with the Chukchi Sea in Russia’s northwest showing unusually large stretches of ice-free waters. Although this summer’s ice levels have not yet hit the record lows documented in 2012, scientists are expecting the upcoming winter’s coverage to stay well below normal. “The record makes it clear that the ice is not rebounding to where it used to be, even in the midst of the winter,” says Claire Parkinson, senior climate scientists with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study.
Habitat loss and illegal poaching are said to be the main threats to the polar bear, which is divided into 19 sub-populations throughout the North. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), three sub-populations are currently in decline, including groups in Canada along the northern coast of the Northwest Territories and the north coast of Baffin Island.
In 1973, five countries – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – signed the Oslo Agreement to ban the commercial hunting of polar bears, with Norway and Russia instituting complete bans on hunting and Canada, Denmark and the United States allowing for limited hunting by Indigenous peoples.