Over the past few days, 56 hungry polar bears have wandered into Ryrkaypiy, a village in far north Russia, forcing locals to cancel their New Year’s celebrations.
It’s not unusual for a few bears to visit the village, but an invasion of this size is unheard of, according to the World Wildlife Federation. The group says the climate crisis is to blame as melting sea ice screw up the bears’ usual habitat, forcing them to search for food elsewhere.
“If there is enough ice, the bears would go further north to hunt the seals,” Mikhail Stishov, the Arctic biodiversity projects coordinator for WWF Russia, said in a statement. “Until the ice is not thick enough, they will stay ashore and can visit the village due to curiosity and hunger.”
If you think you’ve heard this story before, you’re right. In February, Russian officials declared a state of emergency dozens of polar bears got into peoples’ homes near the settlement of Belushya Guba. Ryrkaypiy was also the site of polar bears herding hundreds of walruses off a cliff in late 2017 before laying siege to the village.
“Gathering of polar bears are becoming more frequent, and we have to adapt and find ways to avoid conflicts between people and animals,” said Stishov.
With their normal food sources depleted, the polar bears have been seen eating walrus carcasses that have been on the shore since last month. Tatyana Minenko, Ryrkapiy’s head of village’s polar bear patrol, described the bears as “thin,” which is never a good sign for this time of year.
Polar bears depend on sea ice—which has been melting rapidly over the past decade—to catch their prey. This year saw sea ice bottom out at its second-lowest extent in 40 years this September. The situation around Ryrkapiy hasn’t improved much in the intervening months. The Chukchi Sea that borders the village has seen sea ice fail to regrow in recent weeks and November levels were more akin to mid-summer. In addition to climate change increasing the likelihood of polar bear-human interactions, their diets are also at-risk. As they’ve been forced to scavenge on land more often, scientists recently estimated that plastic and other garbage makes up a quarter of polar bears’ diets in Russia.
Under the Endangered Species Act, polar bears’ official designation is “vulnerable” (as in, at risk of becoming endangered) but experts say that by all scientific measures, they’re actually at risk of extinction. Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone gone by 2050 if their Arctic sea ice habitat continues to melt. Essentially, their continued existence depends on climate action. And those that are still around could end up in contact with humans more often.