Most Alaskans and others who live in bear country are familiar with the adage that provides species-specific advice on how one should react in a close encounter with a bear in the wild.
“If it’s black, fight back.
If it’s brown, get down.”
The rhyme is premised on black bears being small enough (and, relatively, timid enough) that a human fighting back could deter an attack. Brown bears are considerably larger and more territorial than black bears and an aggressive human response could even increase the level of a brown bear’s attack, so the best strategy is to lay on the ground in a fetal position. There seems to be considerable evidence that the strategies work.
There is no limerick that tells you how to respond when encountering the other North American ursine, the polar bear. The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is that polar bears are typically found wandering over Arctic sea ice looking for seals – far from most humans. Inuit hunters regularly venture out onto sea ice to hunt a variety of marine mammals but in the past the chance of anyone else encountering a polar bear on land has been so low there has been no reason to include polar bears in the traditional bear advisory verse.
Based on my now daily encounters with polar bears on Cooper Island and my awareness of why the encounters are increasing in frequency, I am suggesting the bear aphorism be changed to:
“If it’s black, fight back.
If it’s brown, get down. And if it’s polar, go solar.”
In 2002, after 28 summers on Cooper Island, poems were the last thing going through my head when I looked up from weighing a Black Guillemot chick to see a polar bear about 50 yards away walking between me and my tent – where I had left the camp gun. For my first quarter century on Cooper Island I was well aware that I was in close proximity to polar bears, as their sea ice habitat surrounded the island in early summer and was visible and never far off in late summer. But between 1975 and 2002 I had only the rare sighting of them, with no close encounters. The availability of large expanses of sea ice with large populations of ice seals meant that before 2002 there was no good reason for a polar bear to walk down the island and through the guillemot colony, as they now regularly do. But since 2002, polar bears have become regular visitors to Cooper Island. As I write this there are three bears, a mother and two young, sleeping a quarter mile east of the Black Guillemot colony and my camp.
The reason for the increased summer occurrence of polar bears on land in the Arctic is clear. Arctic and global warming are occurring due to our reliance on carbon-based energy sources and the resulting increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide – coupled with increasingly consumptive lifestyles. Warming has been most pronounced in the Arctic causing major reductions in the region’s snow and ice habitats in recent decades. As discussed in an earlier post, the summer sea ice home of the polar bear is now half of what it was when my study began. For the world to avoid increasing warming and resulting habitat destruction – both in the Arctic and elsewhere – we must look to alternative energy sources.
Just as the original bear warning verse provided wilderness hikers advice on how to avoid serious injury when encountering a bear, the addition of polar bears reminds us that they are increasingly seeking refuge on land – and being encountered by humans – due to our dependence on fossil fuel.
Serious injury to many of earth’s ecosystems is likely to occur unless we reduce that dependence and actively adopt alternative energies, including solar power.