A camouflaged eider hen guards her nest. (Photo: Petteri Sulonen CCBY2.0)
On Mitivik Island, the influx of polar bears has been so intense that the eider researchers have left, their studies cut short by the threat of marauding bears. The irony is not lost on me as I recover from my own bear scare. Six seasoned Arctic researchers thought the safety risks of working here were too great. But my team and I are determined to film polar bears trying to adapt to a warming climate.
Over the next few days, bears show up in droves. At one point, we are sharing the tiny island — less than one-fifth the size of New York City’s Central Park — with four large carnivores. We have to keep our heads on a swivel. Even going to the bathroom is a complicated ordeal, requiring another team member to stand post as an armed guard to prevent an unpleasant surprise.
But the bears I see on Mitivik Island are not the predators of my imagination. They plod slowly through the eider colony, grazing on eggs. When the mood strikes, they nap in the Arctic sun. During these lazy days, the speed, aggression, and power of these animals is hard to imagine.
The bears’ relaxed demeanour conceals the disruption that climate change is causing. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, with increases between 2.8 and 7.8 C expected by the end of the century. Polar bears are considered globally at risk because of their dependence on sea ice, a habitat feature that is rapidly disappearing. The energy gained from hundreds of eider eggs is poor compensation for the time lost hunting on the sea ice.
Northern people are also feeling the effects of climate change, perhaps moreso than anyone else. Warming temperatures are melting the permafrost that supports Arctic infrastructure. Melting sea ice makes hunting difficult and contributes to food insecurity. Rising sea levels threaten to submerge coastal communities. Arctic leaders have been sounding the alarm, calling for adaptation strategies and increased involvement of northerners in formulating climate policy.
And what about the eiders? The hungry polar bears take their toll on the Mitivik colony. The two-kilogram hens are powerless to defend their nests against the half-tonne bears. Their best bet is to sit tight and hope the bears mistake them for yet another rock. But polar bears have an impeccable sense of smell. With the sea ice gone for another summer, they
have all the time in the world to carefully scour the island.
We watch the bears plunder the colony for eight days. Of the thousands of nests at Mitivik Island, it is now common to have more than 90 per cent lost to predation. At the end of this season, we find only a single eider nest intact, guarded by one clever duck who has laid her eggs right beside our cabin.