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Here is a piece I just published in the Spectator.
The terrible story of the boys mauled by a polar bear
in Spitsbergen has sparked a debate about the risks of adventure
travel. But what does it tell us about polar bears? Some have claimed that this
month's tragedy is evidence that they are getting hungrier and more
desperate as Arctic ice retreats. More likely, it shows that they
are getting ever more numerous as hunting pressure
For years there was a skin of a bear hanging on the wall of the cafeteria
in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen's capital village - maybe it is still
there. By rights that bear
should have eaten me, or my friend Charles Gillow. The
first polar bearseen in living memory in summer in
Longyearbyen (about 25 miles west of where last week's tragedy
happened), it prowled past our tent while we slept by the beach one
June night in 1978, having come ashore with some pack ice that
drifted into the fjord in the small hours.
Woken by a car horn, a
loud shout of 'Wake up! There's an ice bear outside your tent,' we unzipped the
tent flap suspecting a practical joke, only to see a large,
off-white, furry bottom in plain view less than 100 yards away,
investigating the camp sewage outflow. The bear soon hopped out among the ice floes
till it was lost to view, but tracks in the sand showed it had
passed close to the tent while we slept.
We had a rifle with us, because the year before an Austrian
tourist had been killed by a polar bear
in the north of Spitsbergen and the Norwegian authorities now
insisted for the first time that expeditions be armed. But this was
before the days of tripwires and flares to protect campsites. In
any case, we had been firmly reassured, most of the west coast
was bear-free territory in
summer. We were highly unlikely to see one. Later that summer we
returned to Longyearbyen, where we were told the bear - I think it was an adult male - had
'taken to hanging around the school' and had been shot and skinned
for the cafeteria wall.
Today bears are now far more common in Spitsbergen and the other
islands of Svalbard. They are more common all over the Arctic than 33 years
ago. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2008 that
the polar bear population was at a historic high of
20,000-25,000 bears, up from as low as 5,000-10,000 bears in the
1960s. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature
estimated in 1966 that there were 10,000 polar bears in the world; in 2006, the
same source estimated 20,000-25,000 bears. Just last May the
IUCN Polar BearSpecialist Group concluded there has probably been no drop in
the numbers since then.
The reason for this boom is no mystery. When I travelled in
Spitsbergen in the 1970s and 1980s you could still find old trap
guns on remote headlands, dating from decades before: open-ended
wooden boxes concealing rusty rifles with wires attached to the
triggers so that a bear would
shoot itself if it pulled the bait. The trapper would return later
for the skin. Until 1973, bears were hunted for their fur and for
sport; in that year, an international agreement banned unregulated
hunting, shooting from aircraft and shooting from icebreakers. The
species then thrived. Russia, Greenland and Canada all still allow
some hunting, mainly by indigenous people, but at a much reduced
Not all populations are thriving. Some authorities think the
numbers are declining in Hudson Bay and parts of the Canadian
Arctic, while expanding elsewhere, but these are minor fluctuations
compared with the impressive recovery of the species since the
1960s. Al Gore, in his film An Inconvenient Truth, made much of a
report of four bears that drowned in open water off Alaska,
implying this was a new and deadly fate awaiting polar bears as Arctic ice retreated.
But polar bears often swim long
distances - one was recorded swimming 400 miles - and nobody knows
how unusual it was for four to get caught in a storm and drown.
The polar bear is a specialist seal-eating predator
(so it is little wonder that it goes for other elongated six-foot
mammals when hungry). It occupies a specific niche: the ice edge.
It cannot thrive on unbroken Arctic sea ice, because seals are not
found there. Nor can it survive on ice-free sea because it cannot
kill seals in open water. In parts of the Arctic, notably Hudson
Bay and Wrangel Island, it takes refuge on land for several late
summer months when the ice vanishes, fasting - or scavenging
ineffectually for young walrus, birds and fish - till the ice
re-forms. This is when it is hungriest and most dangerous.
If the ice-free season lengthens in these places because of
climate change, the bears might die out. After all, the most
southerly polar bear dens in the world, in James Bay in
Canada, are on the same latitude as Nottingham: they are at the
extreme southerly end of their range. But by the same token, areas
further north, currently too solidly frozen for seals, will become
more hospitable to bears.
There is now good evidence that this sort of ice retreat has
happened in the past. For example Svend Funder of the
University of Copenhagen recently published a paper with two colleagues, based on a study of
driftwood and beach ridges in north-eastern Greenland, where today
year-round ice fastened to the shore prevents waves that can form
beach ridges. They concluded that for thousands of years when the
Arctic was known to be 2-4°C warmer, beach ridges formed and
driftwood failed to make it to Greenland, indicating open water on
this coast (driftwood needs multi-year ice to be transported from
Siberia without sinking).
In Funder's words: 'Our studies show that there have been large
fluctuations in the amount of summer sea ice during the last 10,000
years. During the so-called Holocene Climate Optimum, from
approximately 8,000 to 5,000 years ago, when the temperatures were
somewhat warmer than today, there was significantly less sea ice in
the Arctic Ocean, probably less than 50 per cent of the summer 2007
coverage, which was absolutely the lowest on record.'
Much has been made of the 2007 summer ice retreat being the
'greatest on record', but records began only in 1979. In the 1920s
and 1930s, there were probably still more open seasons; likewise in
the medieval, Roman and other warm periods all the way back to the
Holocene Optimum. Polar bears
certainly survived such warmer spells, presumably by ranging
somewhat further north. Indeed, fossils suggest that polar bears already existed in their
current form during the last interglacial period, 120,000 years
ago, when the Arctic was almost certainly wholly free of ice in
A total disappearance of sea ice at all seasons would
undoubtedly doom thepolar bear's lifestyle. But no scientist in his
wildest exaggerations is suggesting the disappearance of Arctic sea
ice in winter. As long as there is pack ice for much of the year
with an ice edge, plenty of seals and controls on hunting, thepolar bear
is going to thrive - and tent-based tourism to the Arctic is going
to be dangerous.