On photo paper, polar bears are the beautiful and iconic symbols of the melting Arctic. But what is it like to be the man in charge of protecting a team of world trained researchers from coming face to face with one of these massive, 1000-pound animals?’
“It’s like any other job out there,” Dr. Harald Steen said. “In my belt I’d carry a flare gun and some rope, and I’d be armed with bear bangers, a flashlight, a headlamp and a half-loaded rifle on my shoulder.”
Ice bears are big safety hazards for the exploration team on board the “Lance,” which is tethered to an ice flow near the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Both scientists and crewmembers take turns rotating polar bear guard duties.
Steen normally acts as “cruise leader,” but every so often he takes his turn too. He would stand lookout on the ship’s bridge, and scan the ice for signs of movement as the ship’s shiny, rotating searchlight sweeps back and forth, unveiling endless white under the never ending night sky.
A winter in Svalbard means withstanding the polar night, a 110-day period of darkness as the sun stays below the horizon. “We can only spot a bear within the first 100 metres,” Steen said. “That’s as far as our search beam goes.”
Polar bear guarding is necessary for the research team to safely gather scientific data north of 80 degrees.
Outfitted in yellow and black jumpsuits, workers slide tools and equipment across snowy ice flows to their study sites. Whether team members are analyzing different layers of the snow pack, measuring carbon dioxide emissions or drilling ice cores, someone always has to keep an eye out for the grizzly bear relatives.
“As we remind each other when we start expeditions, it’s not about if you will meet the polar bear, it’s when,” Steen said.
This time around, the “Lance” had four run-ins with polar bears after just six weeks on the job, Steen said. The key is to keep the crew safe without harming the bear.
“You don’t want to start running about in a panic, you have to keep your focus and get the bear away,” Steen said. “We use flare guns to scare the bears… and preferably you aim between you and them so they are running away from you, not towards you,” Steen said with a chuckle.
Polar bears are quite curious, Steen said. “Sometimes they will hesitate to leave after you fire the first flare… so it can take two or three tries before the bear will fully scare and disappear.”
“Using a loaded gun is always a last resort,” Steen emphasized. “There are better ways to ensure safety and we don’t want to kill them.”
The Svalbard region is no stranger to bear attacks.
Two months ago, a polar bear attacked a man on a ski and snowmobile trip on a Svalbard island, near the main town of Longyearbyen. Tourist numbers were high in the region because of the March 20 total solar eclipse. The victim’s group shot the polar bear, and the man man escaped with non life-threatening injuries to his face and arm.
Seventeen-year-old Horatio Chapple wasn’t so lucky.
In August 2011, Chapple was fatally mauled by a polar bear in his sleeping tent on Svalbard’s Von Postbreen glacier. Chapple had been on an adventure expedition with the British Schools Exploring Society, now known as British Exploring.
No one was on polar bear watch the night of the attack.
In the spring and summer, underfed polar bears are more likely to turn to untraditional prey out of desperation, such as humans, reported the Norwegian Polar Institute. During these warmer months, sea ice retreats northward and polar bears may starve if they get stranded on land, the report said.
After Chapple’s death, British Exploring created a standard operating procedure that requires a mandatory bear watch on all expeditions.
Steen said the Norwegian Polar Institute has enforced rotating bear watches on its expeditions for at least as long as he’s worked there, since June 2005.
Crewmembers take three-day training programs every year. Employees take courses on first aid, bear behaviours, protection measures and everyone has to practice with a rifle at a shooting range beforehand, Steen said.
Scientists (not just those on polar bear duty) are also armed with flare guns when they’re working in the field. If someone spots a bear, they’re required to radio in and warn everyone to return to the ship for safety.
The “Lance” crew will conclude their data collection and expedition this June. “Our goal is not to be killed and not to kill polar bears, but to scare them away,” Steen said. “So far not a single bullet has been fired.”