Our planet is changing. Our journalism too. This column is part of a CBC News initiative called “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Follow the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.
Bobbi Stevens had no idea she was going to make national news this month when an unusual visitor – a polar bear – not only came to her home, but visited her rooftop.
Stevens lives in St. Anthony, a town on the northern tip of Newfoundland, not far from Labrador and the pack ice that the North Atlantic serves at this time of year.
“My roof is not so strong and I only have one door in this house… One less nail and it could have passed”, Stevens said in a CBC interview.
“I’m just glad I didn’t know he was there when he was there.”
Stevens learned of the bear’s existence from her dog’s barking and was surprised when she opened her door. “I looked at the shore above my steps [and] this polar bear was staring me in the face.”
She didn’t know the bear was in over her head until she learned that a neighbor’s security camera had recorded the animal’s explorations.
Sightings of polar bears in communities along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador are not uncommon at all, especially in recent years. More years than not, there is a warning somewhere in the province, sometimes in multiple places, for the public to beware of polar bears on land, not on ice or at sea, their more usual terrain .
Shrinking ice fields
But shrinking ice fields in the Arctic – a factor accelerated by climate change – have had huge consequences for an animal that is literally tied to the region. The word “arctic”, after all, comes from the Greek word “arktos”, which means “bear”.
The very name of the animal – polar bear – should remind us that it should be found (and thriving) closer and not farther from the North Pole.
Yet we are there, and they are there. In preparing this column, I reviewed our coverage over the years of polar bear sightings and encounters. There have been many, and a few themes have emerged, including bears appearing in places like The saw, Fogo Island, Greenpond, Grates Cove, and even as far than the Hibernia platformwhich is anchored approximately 315 kilometers southeast of St. John’s.
Violent encounters between bears and humans are not common, but they do happen. For example, a the hiker was seriously injured in Torngat Mountains National Park nine years ago. More often than not, fortunately, people were shaken up but not injured.
Polar bears, after all, are more likely to eat seals than humans. But to find the seals, they need ice, and that’s where things proverbially went south.
Much less ice, much less time to hunt
Scientists have been collecting evidence for years of sea ice loss and the impact it has had on polar bears. The impact of course extends beyond this species, as they – and we – are all connected. Last year, CBC Newfoundland and Labrador produced a series called Thin Icewhich examined how melting ice affected the Inuit of northern Labrador.
For generations, residents of these Inuit communities have relied on the ice for transportation and hunting routes. The loss of ice is one of the factors that has made the Inuit increasingly dependent on store-bought food.
Polar bears are stressed by the loss of ice, with some researchers worrying for years about possible extinction.
“Clearly, you change the sea ice, you affect the bears,” said University of Alberta professor and polar bear expert Andrew Derocher. told CBC News in 2016.
“You can’t push them to a certain point. At some point there just isn’t enough sea ice for them to persist in an area and we would expect them to go away. .”
Here’s how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time. Data collected since the late 1970s have shown a dramatic erosion of pathways that bears can hunt in the Arctic. A study published six years ago by the European Geosciences Union found that by the middle of the century there will be seven fewer weeks a year during which polar bears can hunt.
This means bears go further afield for food, including marathon swimming over a few days in the melting Beaufort Sea. We have also learned that other foods available, such as berries, not enough to supplement a diet high in seal fat.
The polar bear crisis has been unfolding before our eyes for years, and communities closer to the sea ice have grown accustomed to perennial visitors. Consider Black Tickle, a small fishing community in southern Labrador not far from St. Anthony’s Sea.
“I think we’ve had 17, 18 or something like that,” resident Jeffrey Keefe said earlier this month. (It’s happened before; in 2015, Keefe said caring for polar bears was “like herding cows.“)
This is obviously a behavioral change for humans and bears. Keefe said this season polar bears have been spotted far from shore.
“We’ve had polar bears through the trails, through the woods, because they’re driven ashore in different areas,” he said.
Keefe points to climate change for the unpredictable changes in the ice.
Friday was Earth Day, a day dedicated to environmental issues and climate change. It is difficult locally not to make the link with the shrinking of the ice caps and pack ice and a species that is struggling to adapt.
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