Russian Region Declares Emergency After Polar Bears Terrorize Town

polar bear chewing on a rope, also looking terrifying
A polar bear plays in a cage at a zoo in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.
Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

If you thought rising temperatures, extreme storms, and raging wildfires were all climate change had in store for us, the residents of the remote Russian region Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean have a new one for you: a polar bear invasion.

On Feb. 9, the administration of Novaya Zemlya declared a state of emergency due to a “mass invasion of polar bears in residential areas.” Polar bears began gathering around the settlement of Belushya Guba as early as December, but it wasn’t until last week that they started to menace humans, enter residencies and offices, and ravage through garbage dumps. A video of a large polar bear wandering the first floor of an apartment building made rounds on Twitter. Over the weekend, officials counted 52 polar bears near the village.

“The people are scared. They are frightened to leave homes and their daily routines are broken. Parents are afraid to let the children go to school or kindergarten,” the regional government said in a statement.

Polar bears are classified as an endangered species in Russia, and hunting the bears is banned, but officials were considering a cull if the bears didn’t respond to other security measures, such as increased police patrols and new fencing. On Tuesday, a group of scientists from Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage was supposed to Novaya Zemlya to help the local government resolve its polar bear problem, but in a twist of climatic irony, it had to wait for two days for a storm to clear before finally departing. Head of local administration Vigansha Musin told Interfax that on Tuesday only 20 bears were spotted in town, and Thursday morning, the patrols counted nine. Officials aren’t sure why the number dropped.

Musin, who’s lived in the region since 1983, believes that climate change is the main reason behind the polar bear invasion. According to him, in the 1980s, ice around Novaya Zemlya, which means “new earth,” never completely melted in the summer. Today, the Arctic Ocean does not ice over until deep winter. “Most of the bears’ sustenance is found on ice edges. So, the bears, lacking food, flock toward human settlements, toward the smell of food,” Musin said in a statement translated from Russian. “There’s never been such a massive invasion of bears.”

Musin is not alone in linking the polar bears’ invasion to climate change. A 2017 study published in Science revealed that polar bears required more energy to survive than previously thought, and retreating ice is making it harder and harder for them to find and hunt sufficient prey. Researchers from Moscow’s A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution believe that village garbage dump sites likely lured bears in desperate search for food.

While locals may be keenly aware of the detrimental effects of climate change, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a different take. At the 2017 International Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia, Putin told CNBC that climate change has its benefits. Economic activity in the Arctic then accounted for 10 percent of Russia’s GDP, and Moscow had plans to spend over about $3 billion developing the region as it warms. “Currently, along the Northern Sea Route 1.4 million tonnes of cargo is being transported and by 2035 this figure is going to be 30 million,” Putin said, acknowledging that his position may not “go down very well” with the largely Western audience. “This shows that our plans to tap into this region of the globe are justified.”

This bear scare may be short-lived, but as polar ice continues to recede, more and more starving polar bears will wander beyond their regular habitat and into human territory.

World Wildlife Fund Russia, an independent international environmental organization, suggests that food waste landfills in the area will need to be eliminated to keep the bears at bay and villages will need to be equipped with fences, barriers, video surveillance, and alarm systems. The polar bear invasion is just a preview of the challenges to come should the Russian government continue to develop and exploit its Arctic territories in pursuit of profit and without a regard for its environmental footprint.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.