Polar Bear Encounters on Baffin Island

On the hunt for clues to past climate, he found polar bears—and they almost found him.

Research Adventures

When University of Colorado PhD student Kurt Refsnider headed north last summer to collect samples for Gifford Miller’s NSF-funded paleoclimate study, he knew what to expect. He’d already spent parts of two summers exploring the remote, wind-swept reaches of Baffin Island in Canada’s High Arctic, searching for evidence of ancient glacial movement.

He knew that a researcher’s best-laid plans were subject to out-of-nowhere storms or shuffling helicopter schedules.  So the first few weeks of the trip he made in 2009 along with graduate student Chance Anderson proceeded largely as expected (if not exactly as planned). Outfitted with tent-camping gear and their sampling equipment, they were transported to the field by helicopter.

“We flew into Pond Inlet on the northern end of Baffin Island,” Refsnider recalled in a recent email.  “We then were moved into the interior of the island by helicopter and spent several days in a particular area before being moved again to a new site.  Bad weather, which kept the helicopter from reaching us during the last two weeks, forced us to stay days longer than planned at two camps.”

When the weather cleared, the team moved south by helicopter to the Qivitu region. As planned, locals from the community of Qiqiktarjuak helped with logistics.

“We hired two guides to take us by motorized canoe to the Qivitu Peninsula, and we brought one ATV with us to get around once on the peninsula,” Refsnider wrote.  When they reached their study sites, “We set up a camp there, including a trip-wire alarm system due to the presence of bears in the area.”

Retracing Ancient Ice Sheet Movement for Clues to Past Climate

Miller's team is analyzing glacial deposits (rock and sediment samples) for information about how ice sheets formed in ancient times, waxing and waning in response to climate change. A few glacial deposits in the area go back about two million years, a rare commodity in the Arctic. Back in their labs, scientists use a variety of high-tech measurements to extract information about the evolution of the ice sheet.  The information should help them better understand long-term patterns in glacial erosion, test a key hypothesis for the cause of a major shift in global climate cycles that occurred around a million years ago, and lead to improvements in ice sheet models.

In addition to these goals, the team was collecting samples of moss and lichen from beneath the edges of rapidly-disappearing ice caps on the interior of Baffin Island.  These ice caps formed in the past few thousand years in response to climatic cooling.   Due to the cold arctic climate, the ice was frozen to the landscape, leaving the old moss and lichen intact.  Radiocarbon dating of this organic material provides a record of precisely when these ice caps formed, allowing Miller's team to evaluate both potential causes for and the rapidity of this cooling.

Wild Kingdom

The researchers spent a few nights camping, but daily sightings of polar bears—four or five sightings a day, in fact--convinced them to retreat to plan B: to use small cabins that dot the area owned by locals who use them during hunting trips.

The researchers broke camp and drove the ATV to the cabin, a rudimentary structure with boarded-up windows that nevertheless felt like a safer option than the tent camp.  That's ironic given what came next.

“The first night there, at one or two in the morning we were awakened by a crash on the wall, which was followed by probably five minutes of clawing, scraping, and pounding on the far end of the weak little structure,” Refsnider wrote.  “We stomped and yelled, trying to scare the bear away, but we must have smelled pretty dang good.  The thought of shooting at the bear through the wall crossed my mind, but then there would be a hole for the bear's claws to tear at, so I just waited, hoping the interior wall didn't fail.  Eventually the bear gave up, left the mud room, dug briefly around the back of the cabin, and then apparently wandered off.”

The next day, the team flagged down a passing motor canoe and returned to the safety of Qiqiktarjuak to regroup.

“A few days later,” Refsnider continued, “We spent one night at a guide's cabin 50 km to the south.  As we approached it up the fiord in the guide's boat, he noticed the front door had been smashed in.  While no one had been there, a bear had broken down the front door, torn up everything inside the mud room, and then left, again without getting into the main part of the cabin.  Our guide, who had been doing this for 50-plus years, was visibly shaken by this.”

Close Encounters of the Unusual Kind

Though polar bear sightings are common in the area, these close encounters with aggressive bears are not. Refsnider’s advisor, PI Gifford Miller, has spent many seasons working on Baffin Island in the company of polar bears, but none of his stories compare to the events of 2009. The reaction of the community to these events speaks volumes, as well:

“The residents in Qikiqtarjuak were amazed by what was happening.  The sea ice had melted/blown out of the area six-plus weeks earlier than normal, so the bears started coming back onto the land far earlier than normal,” Refsnider explained.  “That means they are much hungrier in late August than normal.  The day after we left, the town put two armed guards on patrol 24 hours a day because of the high number of bears in the area.  This had never been done before.”

The bear encounter wasn’t the only unusual experience the researchers had last summer. They also witnessed dramatic thunderstorms, which “are becoming increasingly common on Baffin Island,” Refsnider said. ”We had five days in a row early in the field season with convective thunderstorms blowing up over the central part of the island, most days with cloud-to-ground lightning!  Inuit are surprised by this, and 30 years ago they heard thunder so rarely that some believed that there was one thunder that slowly circled the globe.”

Back to Baffin

The team will return this summer to Baffin Island to finish the sampling, but with increased precautions to limit their exposure to polar bears.  They will base in Qikiqtarjuak, flying between the village and their sampling sites via helicopter, and returning at the end of the day to the safety of the small community. The helicopter will stay with them at the sampling sites. The research team will be accompanied by local guides who stand watch for bear as the team works.

Refsnider says he’s recently heard from his contacts in the village. In an unprecedented turn of events, the sea ice drifted away in December. This means that it is likely the polar bears will find little sea ice on which to stage their hunt for food again this spring and summer—which may increase the likelihood that they will again approach human settlements to find food.

“We'll be much better prepared to deal with the potential bear risk with several additional armed guides, a helicopter, and more secure place to spend the nights, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't still a bit nervous,” Refsnider admitted.  — Kip Rithner