Fences have risen around kindergartens. Special vehicles transport military personnel to their work sites. Residents of the island settlement are afraid to leave their homes.
Novaya Zemlya is a Russian archipelago stretching into the Arctic Ocean. It once played host to Soviet nuclear tests, including the largest-ever man-made explosion, when the so-called King of Bombs detonated in 1961, releasing 50 megatons of power and deepening an arms race that threatened to turn the Cold War hot.
Today, the barren landscape is under siege — from dozens of polar bears locked in their very own sort of hot war. Marine ecologists have long been sounding the alarm about the peril posed by global warming for the vulnerable species. In the far reaches of Russia, the situation has suddenly become traumatic for humans, too.
Officials in the Arkhangelsk region, where the archipelago lies, on Saturday declared a state of emergency because of the marauding mammals. Polar bears are typically born on land but live mostly on sea ice, where they hunt and feed on seals. But as arctic ice thins, which is linked to the acceleration of climate change, the animals move ashore, ravenous. They scavenge, sometimes coming into contact with human populations.
At least 52 bears were massed near Belushya Guba, the main settlement on the island territory, which is still used as a military garrison, with restricted access to the public. The town had a population of about 2,000 as of the 2010 Census.
Now, they could be selectively slaughtered if Russian authorities can’t figure out another way to keep them from menacing the residents of the remote island outpost, where they began to collect in December 2018. Warning of the “mass invasion of polar bears in residential areas,” local officials vowed action in response to “numerous oral and written complaints demanding to ensure safety in the settlement.”
Officials also said the situation was unprecedented.
“I have been in Novaya Zemlya since 1983, but there has never been so many polar bears in the vicinity,” said Zhigansha Musin, a local administrative head, according to TASS, Russia’s state news agency.
TASS reported that the animals had tried to enter office buildings and residential quarters, and that they had chased residents and engaged in other aggressive behavior. Photos and video footage posted over the weekend showed polar bears parading through drab living spaces, appearing on playgrounds, staring down dogs and feasting on garbage.
“The people are scared,” regional officials reported in a statement. “They are frightened to leave homes and their daily routines are broken. Parents are afraid to let the children go to school or kindergarten.”
Meanwhile, vehicle patrols and brigades of dogs appeared to make no difference. The mammals were undeterred, continuing to pose a “threat to the life and health” of residents, officials said. More drastic measures were required.
Residents are barred from hunting the animals, which are classified as a vulnerable species because of the “ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change,” according to the World Wildlife Fund. …read more