Less than a month after a fatal polar bear attack near Arviat, Western Hudson Bay, European media reported this morning that one of two German polar bear guards escorting a group of tourists on a shore visit in northern Svalbard was mauled on 28 July by a polar bear before the second guard could kill it.
The man was air-lifted to hospital in Longyearbyen with non-life-threatening head injuries. Whether the bear was fat or thin was not mentioned but a necropsy will be performed.
More details are likely to be available within the next few days. The guards and tourists were from the German cruise ship MS Bremen, which apparently is operating a live web cam. The group landed on the Sjuøyene Islands, the northernmost group of islands in the Svalbard archipelago (see the top of the black box on the map below).
This area of Svalbard last saw ice in early May 2018 (below), which means the bear may have been onshore since then. A well-fed bear would not yet be in desperately in need of food after three months but if it was not in good condition initially, it might have been dangerously hungry.
In 2016, sea ice similarly retreated from northern Svalbard by early May:
After an early retreat in May 2016, the ice did not return until early February 2017 (below), which means any bears who took refuge onshore on those islands in May 2016 would likely have starved.
If a similar pattern of ice retreat and return happens this year, the bear responsible for today’s attack in the Sjuøyene Islands would likely have been doomed to starvation.
Fortunately, few polar bears remain near Svalbard year round: the latest estimate is that around 250 bears are loyal to coastal Svalbard (Tartu et al. 2018) out of perhaps as many as 3,750 for the Barents Sea subpopulation as a whole (Crockford 2017, 2018), or about 7% of the total.
Most of the Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation resides offshore in the pack ice year-round or takes refuge in the islands of the Franz Josef Land archipelago to the east where sea ice coverage is less volatile (Aars 2015; Aars et al. 2017; Descamps et al. 2017).
There is no doubt that the Svalbard region in most recent years (except 2015, when the last population count was done) did not have enough sea ice to support a breeding population of polar bears. However, more suitable habitat is present not far to the east in Franz Josef Land and there is no evidence that the Barents Sea subpopulation of polar bears has sufferered a decline in numbers as a result of this sea ice loss near Svalbard (Aars et al. 2017).
Aars, J. 2015. Research on polar bears at Norwegian Polar Institute. Online seminar (‘webinar”), January 14. pdf here.
Aars, J., Marques, T.A., Buckland, S.T., Andersen, M., Belikov, S., Boltunov, A., et al. 2009. Estimating the Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation. Marine Mammal Science 25: 35-52.
Aars, J., Marques,T.A, Lone, K., Anderson, M., Wiig, Ø., Fløystad, I.M.B., Hagen, S.B. and Buckland, S.T. 2017. The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Polar Research 36:1. 1374125. doi:10.1080/17518369.2017.1374125
Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3
Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. pdf here.
Descamps, S., Aars, J., Fuglei, E., Kovacs, K.M., Lydersen, C., Pavlova, O., Pedersen, Å.Ø., Ravolainen, V. and Strøm, H. 2017. Climate change impacts on wildlife in a High Arctic archipelago — Svalbard, Norway. Global Change Biology 23: 490-502. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13381
Tartu, S., Aars, J., Andersen, M., Polder,A., Bourgeon, S., Merkel, B., Lowther,A.D., Bytingsvik,J., Welker, J.M., Derocher, A.E., Jenssen, B.M. and Routti, H. 2018. Choose your poison — Space-use strategy influences pollutant exposure in Barents Sea polar bears. Environmental Science and Technology DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b06137
July 28, 2018 at 06:02PM