© James Morgan / WWF
On the edge of the world
An Arctic village on the front line of climate change
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Polar bears have always come into Arctic settlements, but the problem is escalating...This year we had two real serious incidents. A guy was fighting off a polar bear with his bare hands, and the hunting officer was forced to kill a polar bear that was coming right at him.
Kaare Winther Hansen, Project Manager, WWF

Ittoqqortoormiit (pronounced it-ockor-tormit) is an isolated village on the east coast of Greenland, over 500 miles from the nearest town. There’s no airport or road access. The only way in for nine months of the year is by helicopter. 

A ship comes twice a year to replenish vital supplies, including food. It’s a place of scarcity. But its beauty is supreme.

The sea ice that usually surrounds Ittoqqortoormiit for nine months of the year offers a lifeline to the town's inhabitants, who travel and hunt on it. Indigenous people in the Arctic are more dependent on hunting than in almost any other part of the world - largely due to remoteness, the absence of agriculture and the limited availability of edible plants.

© James Morgan / WWF
© James Morgan / WWF

But in recent years, massive fluctuations in climate mean the sea ice is freezing later and melting earlier, spelling disaster for this indigenous community and its culture.

Ittoqqortoormiit is on the front line of climate change.

Its close-knit community has shrunk from around 500 people a few years ago, to nearer 370 today. People who were once hunters, like their forefathers, now struggle to find alternative work. Young people are forced to leave their home to find further education and jobs. The local police offer support where they can, but there are problems with alcohol and resulting violence. Suicide is high here. This is a community that is melting away.

And then there's the polar bears.

© Max Oudgenoeg / WWF

A growing concern

Once rarely seen, their sea ice hunting grounds are shrinking as the climate warms, forcing them to follow the ice northwards. They can no longer rely on sea ice in Ittoqqortoormiit to hunt enough seals to survive the summer months, and it’s nearly impossible to catch a seal in the open water. Travelling further to find prey uses their vital energy stores - impacting reproduction and survival rates. By 2050, polar bear numbers may decline 30%, and if the sea ice melts two months earlier than currently, over half of polar bear pregnancies could fail.

And so these huge predators are drawn to Ittoqqortoormiit by the smells of the settlement, posing a real threat to people.

Polar bears can weigh as much as 10 people and use their weight to smash through a metre of compacted snow to reach seal dens. They could easily kill a person.

Living on the front line

Mette Hammeken\
© James Morgan / WWF

During the winter it’s too dark in the morning to see long distance. One day my kids wanted to play in the snow before school. Suddenly I saw a man with a gun going next to my house...We had a polar bear sleeping not far away from our house while I'm sending my kids to school.

Mette Hammeken was born in Ittoqqortoormiit and owns the only tourist office. Like many locals, she’s experienced the fear of polar bears first hand.

In the last few years, more and more polar bears have come quite close to the village. If we go on a school outing, we have to bring protection. The teachers will bring a gun.

Torbjørn Ydegaard is the village schoolmaster. Although the school receives warnings when bears are sighted, they must take their own precautions.

© James Morgan / WWF
© James Morgan / WWF

Over the last two years, the ice has broken up in the spring much earlier than normal, and in February it was 10.5 °C warmer than normal.

Erik Pedersen has run the weather station in Ittoqqortoormiit for over 19 years, which sends a weather balloon up twice a day to measure temperature, wind speed and direction.

10 years ago we had sea ice, now there is none in summertime. And when the big ice goes, the polar bear comes.

Erling Madsen is the government Hunting Officer for Ittoqqortoormiit. He spends time with local hunters and villagers and explains why bears should be scared away - to protect this species for the future. He uses his knowledge of the area to help the local polar bear patrol.

© James Morgan / WWF
© James Morgan / WWF

Finding solutions

WWF founded the polar bear patrol in Ittoqqortoormiit in 2015 to protect residents on their way to school or work, and to reduce the number of bears killed in self-defence.

We provide equipment and training for communities to run their own patrols. Teams go out on a quadbike or snowmobile to look for bears and scare them away with loud bangs from their rifles. Handheld thermal cameras help patrols detect bears in low visibility.

Kaare Winther Hansen, Project Manager at WWF, visits Ittoqqortoormiit to train the polar bear patrol.

©James Morgan / WWF
Designed to detect a polar bear’s unique heat-shape, they can spot bears in dark, snowy conditions and at a greater distance than a traditional camera.

Infrared sensors

Designed to detect a polar bear’s unique heat-shape, they can spot bears in dark, snowy conditions and at a greater distance than a traditional camera.

©James Morgan / WWF

WWF runs polar bear patrols in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia. But this is a quick fix solution to a much greater problem – climate change.

“Receding sea ice makes polar bears come closer to the shore and closer to settlements. The big issue is climate change and we have to fight that", says Kaare.