Gjelder hele Svalbard

In a few places on this ancient blue planet, Homo sapiens is not at the top of the food chain. One such location is the Norwegian-administered archipelago of Svalbard, which lies roughly half way between the Scandinavian mainland and the geographic north pole. Svalbard is a truly desolate place, and quite magnificent with it.

I know this from personal experience, having spent months over several years working on the main island of Spitsbergen as a research scientist investigating the aurora borealis. My work took me to Svalbard mostly during the middle of winter, when there is barely a solar photon to be seen in the sky. The land that far north is fully dark for months on end, and a hint of sunlight below the horizon only begins to appear in February. On Svalbard I met and fell in love with the woman who less than a year later I married.

Norway rules Svalbard through a form of colonial government, but the true King of Svalbard is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). Thousands of bears roam the wilderness that is Svalbard outside of the few tightly controlled human settlements, and they have been known to stray on occasion within the boundary of downtown Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen.

Polar bears are a threat to human beings, but generally speaking they know to avoid us. I say generally speaking, as this doesn’t apply if the bears are threatened, or, as is more likely, rapidly shifting summer ice floes cut off the hunting grounds, and the bears go hungry at a time when they must fatten themselves up for the coming winter.

Is this what led to the bear attack on a group of English school children and their guides by the Von Postbreen (Von Post Glacier), 40 kilometres north of Longyearbyen? It is a distinct possibility. The bear strayed into a camp defended by tripwires and flashbangs, and, being the intelligent creature that it undoubtedly was until it was shot dead by a camp defender, this is not normal behaviour.