Monday, February 6, 2012

Waiting For Ice--The Inside Story

Waiting For Ice (Charlesbridge) actually started, as many of my books do, while I was doing research for another book and--WHOA!--I discovered a special story.

I live and write by the rule that 99.9 percent of my research information must come directly from experts who are working firsthand on the subject.  That sometimes takes me to very interesting places, like the South Pole.  Or, at the very least, it lets me talk with experts on the phone--sometimes via satellite while they're in remote places.

So while writing Animal Predators: Polar Bears (Lerner),
I had the chance to talk to Dr. Nikita Ovsyanikov.

 Since 1990, he's spent every Arctic summer on Wrangel Island, studying polar bears.  That's no easy task. Let me set the scene for you.

This is an aerial view of Wrangel Island during the summer and during the winter. 

Wrangel Island in winter.

Wrangel Island in summe
It's never an easy place to live. The island is North of the Arctic Circle.  It's a rugged, windswept, storm-scoured island about half the size of Rhode Island surrounded by frigid seas and miles from anywhere people would find comfortable.

It's no wonder the island has features with such names as Unexpected River and Doubtful Spit.  Check out this website to find out more about Wrangel Island.

So why go there to study polar bears? It's because that's the place hundreds of polars bears are stranded every summer.  All winter long, polar bears roam solo or a mother travels with her cubs. The bears take advantage of icebergs and raft-like ice floes to rest in between hunting seals, beluga whales, and other sea creatures.  Polar bears are good swimmers, but they can't swim indefinitely. So when the sea ice melts, they haul out.  They're stuck wherever they land until, once again, the sea crusts over with ice.  Because Wrangel Island is one of the few available land masses in prime polar bear territory, as many as 600 bears are stranded there every summer.

Imagine the fights that break out as the bears compete for wind-sheltered resting spots and food.  Finding something to eat isn't a big problem while the island is also home to colonies of migratory birds, such as black bellied plovers and red knots, raising their young or walruses stopping by to rest.  However, those animals leave around September.

Normally the sea ice returns in September so the polar bears leave the island about the same time as their prey.  However,  global warming has delayed sea ice formation to as late as November.  Then the polar bears are trapped, waiting for ice.  Eventually, the only food source on the island is scraps, like the remains of a whale that washed ashore and dead birds.

Nikita shared the amazing story of what happened in 2002, a year when the polar bears had to wait until well into November for the sea ice to return.   He said, "One day, I spotted two young cubs alone on a narrow spit of land.  The cubs were small, undoubtedly only born that year, but no mother bear arrived to feed or protect them."

Nikita watched the cubs on the spit for six days. Each day, they screamed for their mother, paced nervously, and bravely lunged to drive away adult bears that came too close. The mother bear never returned, though.  On the sixth day, Nikita discovered there was only a single cub, a young female, stood alone on the spit.  Adult polar bears will attack and kill orphaned bears so Nikita guessed that's what happened to the one cub.  He also worried what might happen to the survivor.

The orphaned cub left the spit and Nikita searched for it each day as he studied the polar bears.  He watched her bravely fend off attacks from adult bears and steal a few bites of dried walrus skin.  One day, she managed to get a dead bird all for herself.  Seeing her fight to stay alive, Nikita nicknamed the cub Tuff.  Watching Tuff became his favorite past time.  Then one day Tuff surprised him by coming to the cabin where he lived on the island. His rule was to only watch the animals, but when he caught Tuff peering longingly into the window of the storage room where he kept his supply of reindeer meat his heart melted.

Nikita said, "To me it was like watching a child suffer.  I couldn't do it. I thought I'd give her a few happy moments in what would surely be a very short life."

 Then he kept on feeding her from time to time because the sea remained ice free that year until 
well into November. 

When the ice finally returned. Nikita packed up to head home too. The day before he left,  he gave Tuff a farewell gift--a whole reindeer carcass.  So she ate and ate.  Then, very full, Tuff waddled out onto the ice, lay down, and fell asleep.

In the morning, Nikita looked for Tuff one last time but couldn't find her. Because the ice was broken up, he guessed Tuff must have ridden out to sea aboard a floating ice raft.  He was sure that was the last he'd ever see of the polar bear cub.  What chance could she possibly have of making it through the winter without a mother to teach her to hunt or to catch food for her.

What a shock he had, when he came back to Wrangel Island that next summer. 

He'd barely settled in when a young adult polar bear plodded up to his cabin.  Nikita said, "I'd spent so many hours looking her in the face and taking her picture, I knew at once this was Tuff."

Tuff seemed to recognize Nikita too. All that summer, whenever she ran into him on the island, she came close and didn't run away.  She also didn't come looking for a handout. She'd learned to survive on her on. Nikita happily watched Tuff growing bigger. When the ice returned that year, she left healthy and strong.

The rest of Tuff's life remains a mystery because Nikita has yet to see her return to Wrangel Island again. He says, "I like to think Tuff's alive and well and raising cubs of her own."

I like to think she is too.   

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