Polar bears are an enduring symbol of the wild arctic, a mighty beast that has made its home in punishing terrains. But in recent years, the polar bear has come to embody something else: A creature caught in a world that’s disappearing under its feet.
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Each fall, the bears descend in hordes on the tiny Alaskan village of Kaktovik, located on Barter Island, hugging the state’s northern coast.
And the bears are hungry.
Polar bears wandering into the town, with its population of just 239 people, proved to be such a problem there that a polar bear patrol now sweeps the streets looking for the animals.
One of the things attracting the bears to this area is what the locals call, “the bone pile,” a spot on shore where whale carcasses have been left for years and years. Marie Rexford, who grew up on this island, said locals are allowed to hunt three whales annually, which they rely on to survive, and they leave the carcasses at the bone pile. The polar bears will then come at dusk and feed on what’s left.
But, they are coming earlier and earlier because, experts say, the sea ice they depend on has been disappearing.
The polar bears' close proximity to the town has also sparked a tourism boom. But, while locals are familiar with the roaming bears and know how to handle them, the town’s mayor worries the tourists do not.
“There are some people that just come on here and try to go out to the bone pile or walk themselves. They don't really understand they are wild animals and their demeanor can change just like that,” said Mayor Nora Jane Burns. “If they get mauled or killed, it is on us, and most people don’t understand that.”
There are limited commercial flights to Barter Island and Kaktovik can be reached by smaller planes. Tourists who want to go "bear watching" can be seen out on chartered boats at sunset, taking pictures of the bears at the bone pile.
“What makes it worth it to me is simply seeing a living symbol, a beautiful white bear walking along the beach who's basically here only because the ice hasn't frozen yet, ice that would have frozen years ago,” said a tourist named Ed Bennett.
Bruce Inglangasak, who captained a boat for the ABC News team, said the bears come close to land to look for food.
“Every year in the fall time, they will hang out here until it is mid-November, and the ice starts forming out in the ocean,” Inglangasak said. “When that starts happening, the seals go on the ice and that’s where the polar bears get their seals on the ice. And if the ice is not there, they don’t get enough.”
The ABC News team traveled to the bone pile by land, in an SUV with a guide, Robert Thompson. He said the team could get out and snap a few shots of the bears, but said to be prepared to run back to the car very, very quickly.
When he first came to the bone pile, Thompson said he could see pack ice all summer long.
“Now there is 150 miles of open water and more in some places,” he said. “We've been hunting whales for about 10,000 years. So they're not coming here because of the bones, the remains of the whales that we catch. They are coming because their habitat has gone away.”
“The world should be interested in this,” he added.
Thompson pointed to evidence that the climate up there is changing.
“You can see where the permafrost is melting,” he said. “You see the ground cracked over there and it is open, and when it melts more, the water flows out.”
Scientists say less and less of this crucial ice returns each year. In this part of the world, the sea ice is declining at a rate of nine percent every 10 years -– a dramatic number to polar bear conservationists.
Dr. James Wilder, a U.S. Forest Service biologist, studies the polar bear population in the Beaufort Sea near Barter Island. While he said the numbers don’t show a scientifically significant increase in the number of bears visiting the island, they do reveal something.
“Polar bears are showing up earlier,” Wilder said. “They used to show up in the beginning of September. Now we see them showing up in late July, August and staying for longer. And that seems to be correlated with the availability of sea ice, so if sea ice melts earlier than it used to, then bears will come to shore sooner.”
Erosion too has affected much of Alaska’s arctic coast, chipping away at beaches, threatening towns and habitats.
“I think the rest of the world should look at this and say it is going to happen more to other people in other areas,” Thompson said. “It has an effect on marine life and marine mammals and the wildlife on land are affected.”
Organizations, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, are trying to figure out just how climate change could be affecting these polar bears.
In the winter, when the bears reach the sea ice, researchers like Dr. Todd Atwood with the USGS will tranquilize them from helicopters to collect samples from the bears.
Atwood said his team will spend about 45 to 50 minutes with each bear they capture, collecting data that includes body measurements and physical stature, as well as looking at how the bears' physical stature may be changing over time.
“I think the most surprising thing for me personally has been the complexity of their behaviors,” Atwood said. “You know we've seen them adapt to some pretty dramatic changes in the Arctic sea ice ecosystem."
"We're seeing them use terrestrial habitats to an extent that we didn't expect them to be able to use,” he added. “We're seeing them switch to certain food items that we didn't expect them to switch to.”
Atwood’s team said they collect and study hair samples from the bears for a project devoted to characterizing the bears’ stress levels.
“We can quantify the amount of cortisol, which is a stress hormone, in these hair samples and we can relate that to the how the environment has changed around polar bears, to figure out if those environmental changes are causing an increase in stress levels,” he said.
But, in order to figure out how polar bears are affected by a warming climate, Atwood said more research is needed. The bears are currently categorized as a “vulnerable” species, meaning they are at high risk of endangerment in the wild. There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 left in the wild.
“I think from a circumpolar perspective, the primary threat to polar bears is sea ice," he continued. "Where you have good high quality sea ice habitat you generally have healthy polar bear populations.”
The opposite appears to also be true, he said, “Where you have areas that have experienced large declines in the availability of sea ice, you tend to have populations that are a bit stressed.”
For the people of Kaktovik, their way of life is at risk, as well. Rexford said locals used to store the whale meat they caught in natural ice cellars. But then, she said, they were all “washed out."
“Erosion got all of them,” Rexford said. “They are all gone.”
The old cellars rely on permafrost to keep food frozen, but Rexford said now most of them are “filled up with water” and it's impossible to use them once they are flooded.
The town has a grocery store, but everything is expensive because the island is remote for suppliers. Eggs will run about $7.25 to $8.75, the store manager, Michelle Kayotuk, said, a bottle of lotion can cost $21 and a bottle of conditioner can set you back $34.
“It is tourist season now. I am finally getting my shipments in,” Kayotuk said. “The planes are fully loaded with tourists and we are slowly getting in our mail and our groceries ... it is challenging.”