KAKTOVIK, Alaska — Come fall, polar bears are everywhere around this Arctic village, dozing on sand spits, roughhousing in the shallows, and attracting hundreds of tourists who travel long distances to see them.
At night, the bears steal into town. They leave only reluctantly, chased off by the polar bear patrol with firecracker shells and spotlights.
On the surface, these bears might not seem like members of a species facing possible extinction. Scientists have counted up to 80 at a time in or near Kaktovik; many look healthy and plump, especially in early fall, when their presence overlaps with the Inupiat village’s whaling season.
But the bears that come to Kaktovik are climate refugees, on land because the sea ice they rely on for hunting seals is receding.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the ice cover is retreating at a pace that even the scientists who predicted the decline find startling.
Much of 2016 was warmer than normal, and the freeze-up came late. In November, the extent of Arctic sea ice was lower than ever recorded for that month. In the southern Beaufort Sea, where Kaktovik’s 260 residents occupy 1 square mile on the northeast corner of Barter Island, sea ice loss has been especially precipitous.
The continuing loss of sea ice does not bode well for polar bears, whose existence depends on an ice cover that is rapidly melting as the climate warms.
The largest of the bear subspecies and a powerful predator, the polar bear became the poster animal for climate change. Even as the polar bear’s symbolic role has raised awareness, some scientists say it has also oversimplified the bears’ plight and unwittingly opened the door to attacks by climate denialists.
Few scientists dispute that in the long run — barring action by countries to curb global greenhouse gas emissions — polar bears are in trouble
But the effect of climate change in the shorter term is less clear cut, and a populationwide decline is not yet apparent.