I always look forward to traveling to Kaktovik. Whenever I travel there, I get to see folks I have come to know as friends, as well as amazing scenery – and polar bears!
Almost as far north as you can get in Alaska, Kaktovik is located on the north shore of Barter Island, and is home to a community of Inupiat people who maintain many of their Eskimo traditions. Each fall, polar bears coming to and from the Arctic pack ice stop in and around this area on the coast of the Beaufort Sea. Polar bears are traveling to coastal communities like these earlier each year due to shrinking sea ice, and they stay longer in and around these communities in the fall as Arctic sea ice takes longer to form.
I arrived in Kaktovik this month hoping to meet with the four families who are piloting our new polar bear-resistant food storage containers. Together, we’re working to find an alternative to replace traditional ice cellars. In these remote, native communities, families traditionally harvest and store food in a cellar carved directly into the permafrost, where the temperature keeps meat and other food from spoiling. However, with warming temperatures, we are losing permafrost. These cellars, some more than 100 years old, are filling with water from the melting permafrost, spoiling stored food items and forcing families to find new storage options. If the food is stored somewhere less secure, residents run the risk of polar bears and other predators coming into the community – a situation that isn’t safe for humans or for the bears.
Our second generation of polar bear-resistant food storage containers just recently arrived on the fall supply barge to the community. They were designed with improvements after the first generation of containers failed when a polar bear and her cubs figured out how to break into them. It did take quite a bit of effort, but bears can be determined that way, especially when they have young cubs to feed. The mother bear had turned the containers on their sides and jumped on them to pop the lids open and get the food stored inside, eventually damaging or destroying all of the containers in the community. So we went back to the drawing board with our partners at World Wildlife Fund to create and fund new containers that we hope will stand up to even the most determined of polar bears.
I worked closely with members of the community to design the new containers being tested now. They are larger, heavier, have better venting, versatile shelving and necessary safety hinges to open and close the heavy lids. So far the containers are working, but it is still early in the season, and the community is still in the process of gathering and storing its food for the winter. At the same time, annual low sea ice brings polar bears to Barter Island and the surrounding barrier islands and shores. The coming months will tell if the new generation of food storage containers is up to the challenge.
Keeping polar bears out of community foods is a simple step towards keeping people and polar bears safe. When bears can find easy food too close to humans, it can lead to them being killed. Not to mention that these families rely on the food in their storage containers to get through the winter. With these containers, we hope to have hit on a solution where everyone wins. We’ll keep you posted with an update from Kaktovik in the spring!
Adopt a Polar Bear
Help protect polar bears and bring home one of your own! Adopt a polar bear today and you’ll be helping to support our coexistence work in Alaska, as well as our efforts to fight climate change – a major threat to polar bears – through vital research and policy work.