Annie Tikluk was in her Kaktovik home Monday evening when she saw the polar bear through her kitchen window.
Her daughter and two of her niece’s daughters had been playing outside. At one point, she noticed the young girls stopped laughing. She went to the window to see what was happening.
“That’s when I saw the bear and ran out,” Tikluk said in a phone interview.
She was about 6 feet away from the bear, she said, and it had two paws on her deck. Then a neighbor ran across the street and chased the animal off.
“He put his life in danger for those girls,” she said.
Tikluk has been close to bears before, while out camping, she said. In Kaktovik, a community of about 240 people along Alaska’s northern coast, sightings of them in town are not new. Polar bears are a part of life there; people offer polar bear tours to visitors, and the North Slope Borough’s website has information about how to be prepared in polar bear country. The borough has a polar bear patrol for a number of years.
But this year, reports of polar bears in Kaktovik are starting “a little bit ahead of schedule,” said Todd Atwood, a research wildlife biologist who leads the U.S. Geological Survey’s polar bear research program.
“We tend to see aggregations starting around the middle or third week of August,” said Atwood, who is based in Anchorage.
The bears make their way to land from the Beaufort Sea around this time of year and await the return of sea ice. There’s a lot of variation from one year to the next in terms of when the bears come ashore, Atwood said. Compared to 2017, for instance, this year is only about a week ahead of schedule.
More significant is the change over a longer period of time. The length of the southern Beaufort Sea’s ice melt season — the time between sea ice breakup in summer and freeze-up in the fall — “has increased substantially since the late 1990s,” according to a 2016 research paper that Atwood co-authored and that the Anchorage Daily News reported about when it came out.
As the Arctic warms, changes in sea ice habitat have coincided with evidence that polar bears’ use of land habitat is increasing, the research found.
“From my perspective, the main issue is that bears in the southern Beaufort are now using land to an extent they haven’t used it historically,” Atwood said. “And increasing activities in the Arctic, particularly those related to development, the main consideration going forward is probably going to be how bears and humans are sharing those spaces."
Tikluk’s wasn’t the only close contact in the last week in Kaktovik, said Mayor Amanda Kaleak. While the bears usually don’t show up until mid-August right before the fall whaling season there, people have been seeing them since May and June, she said.
“There’s like stragglers here and there … we’ve seen them though, which is kind of rare," Kaleak said. “They’ve been just really sneaky, getting into town.”
One person posted photos on Facebook last week of a polar bear standing underneath a raised building there.
Atwood’s research, which he worked on with a few other scientists, found polar bears were arriving on shore earlier and staying longer, the paper said.
Since the late 1990s, the researchers found, the average duration of the open-water season in the southern Beaufort Sea increased by 36 days.
During the polar bears’ time ashore, their location was influenced by the availability of subsistence-harvested bowhead whale remains at various sites along the coast, according to the paper.