A Russian Village Is Being Overrun by Polar Bears; This Is Not Normal

©. Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Some 60 polar bears are loitering near Ryrkaipy in Chukotka Russia, a new occurrence which is prompting some to suggest permanent evacuation.

Every place on the planet has its own set of issues to contend with in the face of a changing climate. In the far north village of Ryrkaypiy, in the Chukotka region of Russia, they've got polar bears. Lots and lots of polar bears.

While in the past it hasn't been unusual for a few polar bears to be seen around the village this time of year, the number has been increasing. Five years ago there were only about five, this year so far a group of 60 or more has been lingering around the village of 700 residents. A leading Russian expert on polar bears, Anatoly Kochnev, told Tass news agency that polar bear visits are increasingly frequent, according to the BBC.

"I as a scientist believe [Ryrkaypiy village] should not remain there," he said. "We try to control the situation, but nobody would want to think what may happen there in three to five years."

For now, the BBC reports that all public activities in Ryrkaypiy have been cancelled and schools are being guarded to protect people from the bears.

Geoff York, Polar Bears International Senior Director of Conservation, wrote in a statement that, “historically, the Chukchi Sea would be ice covered by now and bears would be out hunting seals.”

York recently returned from studying polar bears in Russia and has more than 20 years of Arctic field experience, including his role as Arctic Species and Polar Bear Lead for WWF’s Global Arctic Program. He is a member of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the U.S. Polar Bear Recovery Team, a past chair and active member of the Polar Bear Range States Conflict Working Group, and much more. Which is all to say that knows his polar bears.

He explains that polar bears migrate along the Chukotka coast at this time of year as the sea ice refreezes and they try to return to the ice to hunt seals. This specific area has become a haul out location for pacific walrus. Each autumn, the polar bear patrol volunteers gather the carcasses near the village from walruses that have died naturally and move them to sites farther away from the community. Usually, this along with active patrolling are enough to keep the community safe from polar bears.

"This year is different, and the situation residents now face is one that communities across the Arctic are concerned about," notes York. He continues:

"As summer sea ice continues to hit historic lows, polar bears in many areas are spending longer times onshore and in larger numbers. 2019 saw record breaking low sea ice extent in the Chukchi Sea. While that ice has started to refreeze, that growth has been sluggish to date and seemed to hit a plateau in November, especially in the region of Chukotka.

There is still significant open water in the Chukchi and north of the community. Polar bears that summered along the Chukotka coast may be moving eastward in search of more substantial ice. The occurrence of walrus carcasses near Ryrkaipy would be both a strong attractant and a powerful reward for them to linger. While having a few bears wander near the community is normal, having 56 at once, and having them linger, is uncommon and of concern.

Historically, the Chukchi Sea would be ice covered by now and bears would be out hunting seals. Looking at ice maps, while there is a band of coastal ice, it is narrow and likely unstable given the open water still to the North. It also seems that November storms broke up some of the ice that had formed, so this may simply be a case of delayed ice formation and bears waiting for a more stable platform combined with the availability of marine mammal carcasses near the community.

The question is, how long will they be onshore waiting for ice, and what will they do when they have depleted the carcasses?"

Low sea ice, hungry polar bears congregating on the edge of a village, what could possibly go wrong? Hopefully the ice will soon become stable enough to allow the bears to return to the sea. But for anyone wondering, "What does climate change look like?" I might suggest this scenario...