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How polar bear guards protect the largest Arctic expedition ever

A glimpse into the lives of the MOSAiC mission’s polar bear guards—and the powerful predators they watch for.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Working with polar bears "isn't about what you do when you have a bad encounter," says polar bear researcher Eric Regehr, "but what you do to prevent them." Image Credit: Michael Ginzburg

Michael Ginzburg was 20 when he met his first polar bear.

It was October 2008, and Ginzburg—a student at the time—was aboard a small research vessel northwest of the Svalbard archipelago when his mentor shouted that she’d spotted a bear on the coastline. Ginzburg scrambled up to the deck and sprinted to the front of the boat, forgetting both gloves and boots.

Shivering in his slippers, he studied the animal 1,000 feet away (a male, he would later learn, identifiable by its thick neck and short, pointed tail). Over the soft whir of clicking cameras, he heard its playful grunts and growls as it fussed with a fishing net that had washed ashore. As Ginzburg’s hands and feet went numb, his nose tingled with the bear’s heavy musk, wafted out to sea by strong Arctic winds.

Ginzburg, who is from Russia, had been in closer proximity to bears in zoos. But this peaceful encounter on the animal’s home turf felt different. “It had this certain intimacy,” he says. “It wasn’t this loud, crowded moment.”

That first polar bear, he says, made him sure he didn’t want it to be his last.

Now a photojournalist and polar adventurer based in Germany, Ginzburg has made good on that vow. His next expedition may be his most challenging yet: As one of several polar bear guards for the ongoing Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition, he’ll be drawing on his close encounters with bears to ensure other people don’t have them.

Over the course of a pair of 2-month stints aboard the icebreaker Polarstern, a research vessel currently frozen into a slab of Arctic ice, Ginzburg will spend his days scouring the horizon for bears. It will be his job to watch them, in the hopes of safeguarding the ship, its equipment, and the hundreds of people on board. It will be his job to scare them, if and when the curious creatures come too close. And, under the direst of circumstances, it will be his job to shoot and kill them, should it be necessary to save a human life.

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Polarstern approaches Akademik Fedorov, a supporting icebreaker, to exchange people and scientific equipment. Image Credit: Esther Horvath

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth. MOSAiC will document an entire year of the physical, geochemical, and biological changes taking place in this shifting landscape in the hopes of improving global climate models and preserving what’s left of Earth’s fragile crown of ice.

The questions the MOSAiC team is asking about this region have never been more urgent, says Katie Florko, a polar bear researcher at the University of British Columbia. As temperatures rise, Arctic ice is fading, imperiling the countless creatures that depend on it—and fueling weather extremes farther south. “It’s all reliant on the sea ice,” Florko says. “It all comes full circle.”

That makes the risks worth it, she says, for polar bears and people alike. This is about their future—and ours.

Constant vigilance

Since mid-October, Polarstern has been moored into an ice floe that’s creeping past the North Pole at about 4 miles per day. Over the next year, some 300 scientists will reside on the ship in 2-month rotations. They’ll anchor encampments and equipment directly into the floe, sampling everything from the air swirling miles above the ice to the microscopic sea life teeming thousands of feet below.

This base camp, which extends about half a mile from Polarstern itself, is the heart of the expedition, and the most critical area to protect. Teams of polar bear guards—six to eight on each leg of the trip—will spend most of their days on watch, either scouring the horizon from the ship or patrolling a tripwire fence encircling the camp. When researchers need to collect samples from stations off-site, some up to 30 miles away, they’ll take guards with them.

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A polar bear feasts on a fresh kill. Image Credit: Michael Ginzburg

Unlike their grizzly cousins, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are tailor-made for the punishing habitats of the north. Swaddled in inches-thick layers of fat and dense white fur, these behemoths can weigh more than 1,300 pounds. Their skull-crushing jaws and clawed feet can disembowel a 4-foot seal. Polar bears have even been known to go after walruses twice their size.

Behind the bears’ black noses—able to smell prey from miles away—are minds as sharp as their teeth: They’re calculating hunters, capable of snaring seals when they breach the sea ice to breathe. They communicate with each other through scents, sounds, and subtle body language. And they can navigate journeys of hundreds, if not thousands, of miles with their senses alone. “Polar bears are very smart animals,” says University of Alberta’s Ian Stirling, who’s been studying polar bears for almost 50 years. “You can practically see the wheels turning in their heads.”

As far as bear fare goes, humans aren’t high on the list: Our lack of substantive blubber makes us an impractical snack for an animal that fasts for up to eight months at a time. “By and large, polar bears don’t actually like coming around people,” Stirling says.

But out here, people are interlopers, and even mild curiosity from something this strong can spell trouble, Ginzburg says. Like a child touching the wings of a butterfly, tactile investigation from a polar bear can be a death sentence. “That’s purely because of their enormous size and weight,” he says. “By feeling you, unfortunately, they break you.”

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Photojournalist and polar explorer Michael Ginzburg, a former researcher now serving as a polar bear guard on the MOSAiC Arctic expedition. Image Credit: Julia Hager

Should a bear cross the tripwire fence, a flare will be triggered to, in theory, frighten the animal away. But the mechanical barrier alone isn’t enough. Flares are reactionary, not proactive. That’s where Ginzburg and the rest of the safety team comes in: Their eyes and ears are needed to sense the bears; their voices, to raise the alarm. Around bears, “the hardest job of all is maintaining vigilance,” Stirling says.

On his daily patrol, Ginzburg will use binoculars to scan the sea ice—not just for fur, but for the signs that might precede or follow a bear’s presence: the alluring silhouette of a seal, or a fat set of footprints in the snow. A keen nose also helps. “Bears are very smelly,” he says. “You can tell if they’re coming downwind.”

But it can still be surprisingly easy to miss a thousand-pound bear. “They’re huge, but they are also very well camouflaged,” he says. “Sometimes the bear is 100 meters in front of you, but in the shade...it will just look like a pile of dirty snow.” To human eyes, subtle differences in light can transform a lump of ice into a living, breathing predator. Polarstern guards will also monitor a suite of thermal cameras that can detect heat emanating from beneath the bears’ vast white coats.

Key to guarding is also a good understanding of animal behavior, Ginzburg says. If a bear is well-fed and healthy, there’s little reason for it to stop. But that’s not always the case. If the animal gets within a few hundred feet and Ginzburg senses a threat, he’ll ready his flare gun—a handheld version of the scare tactic deployed by the tripwire fence.

Not all bears scare easy, though.

The absolute last resort is the .308 caliber rifle carried by each guard. If it comes to it, Ginzburg says, there’s a protocol: Once the bear’s within 100 feet, take aim just below the head. One shot is usually enough to take down a smaller female or a juvenile. Multiple shots might be necessary for a healthy adult male. “If we shoot, we shoot to kill,” Ginzburg says.

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A male polar bear lounging in the snow. Image Credit: Michael Ginzburg

In the past 10 years, Ginzburg has seen many hundreds, if not thousands, of bears. He’s never had to fire at one. (Neither have any of the other eight people interviewed for this story, guards, researchers, or otherwise.)

In reality, being a successful polar bear guard is less about being good with guns than it is about awareness and communication, says Åshild Rye, a Norwegian polar bear guard who will join Ginzburg on the second leg of the trip next month. “It’s about trying to be as present as possible,” she says. Rye’s strategy is to think in hypotheticals: Where is the bear coming from? How is the bear behaving? Am I at a good vantage point? What will I do if the bear comes close?

Armed guards will lead any MOSAiC scientific teams that travel far from the ship, and will be the first to venture into any new terrain. While they scout, ideally from high ground, vehicles will be kept running to maintain an easy escape route; equipment won’t be set up until there’s a solid all-clear. Near Polarstern, there are plenty of places to retreat. But the farther away the researchers get from their temporary civilization, the more vulnerable they are.

“I don’t know a single Arctic scientist who isn’t always thinking about safety,” says Kristin Laidre, an Arctic ecologist and polar bear expert at the University of Washington. “If you don’t do it that way, you don’t keep doing it.”

The full North Pole experience

Ginzburg, Rye, and about 100 of their colleagues will set sail from Tromsø, Norway on the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn at the end of this month, reaching Polarstern’s ice floe in mid-December. By that time, the Arctic ice will have begun to thicken and winter storms will be powdering the landscape with fresh snow. To avoid perturbing the ice locking Polarstern in place, incoming and outgoing MOSAiC personnel will either make the trek from ship to ship on foot, or hitch a ride on snowmobiles or helicopters.

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Scientists Gunnar Spreen (center) and Matthew Shupe (right) exam a potential ice floe for MOSAiC in September 2019. Image Credit: Esther Horvath

The second leg of the trip will be the most difficult, Ginzburg says. As Earth’s North Pole tilts completely out of the reach of the sun, the Polarstern team will be working in continuous darkness for several months—the Arctic’s polar night. It’s the graveyard shifts to end all graveyard shifts.

This will be Ginzburg’s fourth extended polar night. For him, it’s a draw, not a deterrent. “It’s about as Arctic as it gets,” he says. “The full North Pole experience.” (He’ll be joining MOSAiC on a later leg, too, where he’ll be privy to the opposite effect: midnight sun.)

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Visibility during these months will be poor, and even with top-of-the-line night vision goggles, Ginzburg and his colleagues may only be able to spot bears when they’re just hundreds of feet away—a paltry distance, he says, compared to the mile or more that binoculars afford. The guards will also have to be conscious of the length of their shifts. Long stints with the goggles, Ginzburg says, have a way of wearing on the eyes and mind. “You’re in pitch black, you’re on your own, you start to get cold,” he says. After a couple hours, he says, “your imagination and your brain start messing with you.”

A changing of the guard will occur every two hours or so, with personnel rotating between shifts on the ship and out on the ice. There are accommodations aplenty on board, but things quickly get less luxurious in the field. A big conundrum, Ginzburg says, is how to safely pee while on patrol amid strong winds and temperatures that can plunge to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

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A male (left) and female (right) polar bear on the Arctic ice. Image Credit: Michael Ginzburg

Privacy isn’t a problem, but on a mission where pristine ice samples are key, contaminating the snow is a big no-no. Instead, Ginzburg uses a Nalgene bottle that’s a different size and color from the one carrying his drinking water. “When you’re exhausted, tired, and cold...it is really easy to grab the wrong [container],” he says. “That’s not such a big problem for the toilet urge, but at some point later on the mistake will become very evident.” (The protocol is similar for Ginzburg’s female colleagues, but with an extra piece of equipment: a female urination device.)

During polar night especially, the guarding job will come down to mental grit, says Rye, who’s weathered several winters in Svalbard. Like Ginzburg, though, she’s looking forward to the challenge—in part because it’ll bring the team on Polarstern closer together. Members of the expedition’s safety team hail from all around the world, and many of the guards have yet to meet each other in person. “With so many people in one place...this will be the most social time,” Rye says. “That will make the darkness a welcome season for me.”

Rye will also be the only female polar bear guard on her leg of the trip, though it’s a distinction she’s used to. “A lot of the work I’ve done before has also been dominated by men,” she says. Her love of the outdoors is what keeps her coming back. “We have distanced ourselves too far from nature,” she says. “We think we are something separate. But people are nature.”

Like Rye, Ginzburg leapt at the chance to participate in what he calls “the biggest expedition in the history of humankind.” When you get an offer like that, he says, “it’s hard to say no.”

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A male polar bear. Most polar bears “are very risk averse” and don’t want much to do with humans, says polar bear researcher Eric Regehr. But every so often, one might approach out of curiosity. Image Credit: Michael Ginzburg

But Ginzburg’s polar expeditions have become bittersweet since the birth of his son, who will celebrate his second birthday while his father is wintering aboard Polarstern. Packed alongside Ginzburg’s clothes and tools is a set of skis, painted by his son, that he’ll wear most days he’s patrolling. “He did some very abstract drawings, right on the front,” Ginzburg says. “With those drawings ahead of me...all I have to do is look down. They’re a reminder for me to not do anything stupid.”

The most dangerous game

A few years back, Ginzburg had his closest call yet. While on a job in the Arctic, he lost track of his surroundings and was startled to spot a large male bear just a few hundred feet away ambling toward him and his crew. He scrambled for his flare gun, loaded a cartridge, and fired. The bear was unfazed. So Ginzburg shot off another flare—and then another. But the bear plowed on.

Heart pounding, Ginzburg slowly began to load his rifle. “When an animal looks that dedicated, walking to you...it was a scary situation,” he says. “I was ready to shoot.”

The bear was a little more than 200 feet away when Ginzburg took aim. But in an instant, the bear seemed to change its mind. It turned and lumbered away.

In retrospect, Ginzburg and his crew weren’t in any real danger, he says. Their unexpected visitor had probably just been curious—lured in, perhaps, by the scent of another group of bears nearby while Ginzburg’s attention had drifted. “I neglected my surroundings,” he says. “It was my fault.”

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Safety engineer Bjela König watches a group of scientists from the bridge of Polarstern. Image Credit: Esther Horvath

Ginzburg doesn’t expect such close calls during MOSAiC’s yearlong expedition. Though all guards will carry a rifle and ammunition, “their whole job is to do everything they can so that weapon never has to be used,” Laidre says.

Polarstern has already been visited by a handful of bears, including a mother and her young cub. Ginzburg estimates that the mission will glimpse several dozen more—perhaps even 100—before its 13 months in the Arctic are up.

For MOSAiC to be successful, it must put humans in polar bear territory. That means exercising respect and caution—and identifying priorities ahead of time, says Florko. If it comes down to protecting a piece of equipment or an animal, there’s no question about what comes first, she says. Most measurements can be salvaged; the same can’t be said for an endangered life.

The human-polar bear relationship is complex, but it doesn’t have to be contentious, says Katya Wassillie, who is Alaska Native (specifically Yup’ik/Iñupiaq) and executive director of the Alaska Nannut Comanagement Council (ANCC). Indigenous populations native to the Arctic have been sustainably harvesting bears (called nanuq in Inuit languages) for food and clothing for millennia, Wassillie points out. This longstanding relationship, she says, is built on respect and a mutual sense of boundaries. Even when not tracking the bears, human hunters will cross paths with them on the ice because they often seek the same prey. And bears can benefit from the bone piles left behind by whaling communities. The two species, Wassillie says, have spent generations growing alongside each other.

“Most people see...a dangerous, aggressive animal,” Ginzburg says. “But I see way more bears being gentle and curious, and funny and intelligent.”

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A male (right) and female (left) polar bear tussle before mating. Image Credit: Michael Ginzburg

Polar bears have no natural enemies. But the global changes wrought by human-driven climate change have made them some of the most vulnerable creatures in the Arctic—the only place they live. Perhaps the greatest threat humans pose to polar bears’ existence isn’t one carried out by bullets or guns, but the continued warming of the world.

Unlike other bears, polar bears are considered marine mammals, spending most of their lives atop sea ice, where they hunt, mate, and often raise their cubs. Recent melts have displaced bears from the habitats where they make their highest-calorie kills, driving them onto land before they’ve had the chance to build up enough fat to endure months-long fasts. With fewer platforms to hunt from, bears are now traveling greater distances for less food, putting serious strains on their health, says Anthony Pagano, a polar bear researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

More time spent ashore also brings bears into closer contact with people, leading to conflict—and even a handful of fatalities. As they lose their habitats, bears are also being visited more and more by tourists and researchers. The exposure makes Wassillie worry that some of these dangerous predators are becoming habituated to humans and important deterrents like flares—the same ones that MOSAiC’s polar bear guards carry. “The bears know when they’re not in mortal peril,” she says. “Now certain methods are not as effective as they used to be.”

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A polar bear on sea ice. Photojournalist Michael Ginzburg snapped this photo when the bear wandered by, seeming curious. Image Credit: Michael Ginzburg

Roughly 26,000 bears currently inhabit the Arctic, but several populations are experiencing precipitous declines, says Eric Regehr, a polar bear expert at the University of Washington. But the disappearing sea ice is “changing rapidly and dramatically in only one direction,” he says. “If climate change isn’t addressed...a century from now, this species won’t be around as we know it today.”

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, Laidre says. The changes happening up north—the ones affecting bears now—have already begun to trickle down to the rest of the planet, fueling floods, storms, and temperature fluctuations worldwide.

That puts polar bears and people on the same side. What’s between us and them isn’t about animosity, or the hierarchy of predator and prey, Ginzburg says. It’s about finding a way to coexist—to share the Arctic, and its ice, while it’s still there.

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National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust. Major funding for Polar Extremes is provided by the National Science Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, The Kendeda Fund, the George D. Smith Fund, and the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1713552.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.