At 2:30 P.M. in the village of Wales, a polar bear attacked and killed a mother and her 1-year-old child in Alaska. Although rare, fatal polar bear attacks do happen in the only state containing these enormous bears. Let’s examine this unfortunate event and how often polar bears and humans come into contact in Arctic regions across the world.
Where the Alaskan Polar Bear Attack Took Place
The fatal attack took place in the village of Wales. Like other towns on Alaska’s western shore, Wales is inaccessible by road and extremely remote. The more famous town of Nome Alaska (where the Iditarod Dog Sled race ends) is 50 miles by air to the south. With only 168 residents (as of the 2020 census), Wales is extremely small and mostly home to Inuit tribe members. The economy of the town centers around whaling and winters get extremely frigid.
The weather directly impacted the fatal polar bear attack. Summer Myomick, a 24-year-old native of Wales, was walking 150 yards from the local school to a health clinic when the attack happened. She was unable to see the polar bear because of a blinding snowstorm which limited visibility to just a few feet. The bear struck from behind a curtain of snowfall. With the attack happening near a school, several people tried scaring the bear with snow shovels, but it chased them and forced them back inside.
Eventually, a community member shot the bear, but it was too late to save Myomick and her child who passed away.
The History of Polar Bear Attacks in Alaska
The attack on Tuesday was the first fatal polar bear attack in Alaska in 30 years. Polar bears are known to be more aggressive than other species. While grizzly bears get about 10% of their diet from meat, polar bears are almost strictly carnivores. There is simply little vegetation to subsist on in the Arctic.
In the 2010s, there were no polar bear fatalities in Alaska, but there were two fatalities in Canada. Both happened in Nanavut during the summer of 2018. Prior to that, the last polar bear attack in North America had happened in 1999 when a 64-year-old female was mauled near a Hudson Bay camp.
The last Alaskan polar bear fatality happened in Point Lay Alaska, which is a similar town to Wales. It’s a remote town of about 330 residents where on December 8th, 1990 a 28-year-old male was killed in the middle of town.
Surprisingly, there were two fatal polar bear attacks in the 1980s but both happened in New York City, which is thousands of miles from Alaska. Both attacks happened in zoos after men climbed into polar bear enclosures in 1982 and 1987.
Despite the close confines polar bears and humans sometimes share in Alaska, attacks remain incredibly rare.
Humans and Polar Bears Across the World
Polar bears hunt mostly marine prey and are thus rarely seen inland. Their range is mostly along the northern coasts of Arctic land masses. That means they can be found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, and Russia. The furthest south their range takes them is along Hudson Bay, otherwise, they live almost entirely above the Arctic Circle.
Human populations in areas where polar bears live are generally very low. The “largest” town on Alaska’s north coast is Utqiagvik (Barrow) which has a population of 4,927. In Alaska, the town of Churchill is known as the “polar bear capital of the world.” Polar bears are a part of life in this town, with about 1,000 polar bears migrating to the area from July through November. In fact, locals keep their car doors unlocked in the town in case another resident needs a quick escape from an advancing polar bear!
Another place where humans and polar bears live in close contact with one another is Svalbard, a chain of islands that’s part of Norway. In fact, there are so many polar bears on the islands that anyone leaving a settlement is required to be equipped with “suitable means of scaring off polar bears.” That is to say, you’re required to travel with a gun or similarly powerful means of defending yourself.
While the fatal polar bear attack in Alaska is a terrible event that has a town grieving, polar bear encounters with humans remain extremely uncommon across the world. However, with the two living in the same environments, rare encounters will occur.
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