Carnivorous polar bears and humans aren’t supposed to mix - for obvious reasons.
But with sea ice taking longer to form due to climate change, these bears are forced to spend more time on land before they can return to the ice to hunt ringed seals.
Researchers in the remote Canadian village of Churchill have been testing out an AI radar – or ‘’Beardar’’ - to keep the village’s 900 inhabitants safe.
Geoff York is a senior conservation director at Polar Bears international.
''This project is to look at whether this radar system designed for military and security use can detect polar bears coming into communities or camps, especially in times of low visibility at night, during snowstorms etc. because the radar can see through all that. So, we’ve spent the last couple of years testing just the basics – does the system pick up bears reliably and what’s the detection rate.’’
When the radar detects what’s likely to be a polar a bear ambling toward a human settlement, it will alert authorities who then deploy a range of tactics from rubber bullets to helicopters to shoo the bear away.
But the key is making sure they have the right target.
''This year we’re actually training its artificial intelligence system to automatically identify bear-like creatures out in the landscape from other things. And so we’re physically going in and tagging things the radar picks up by saying ‘oh yeah, that’s a caribou, a polar bear, that’s a tundra buggy, that’s a person.’ Over time, the system will learn that it will be able to automatically narrow down what’s likely there, so that we’re giving that information to conservation officers or others instead of letting them know there’s a moose out there or a caribou that they don’t really care to know about.’’
Churchill’s residents are used to living alongside hundreds of bears for part of the year: as a rule, townfolk leave car doors and homes unlocked in case someone needs to take shelter from the animals.
A 24-hour hotline receives up to 300 tips on polar bear sightings each year.
The bears aren’t as big as they used to be though.
As they wait for the sea ice to form, which these days takes about four weeks longer than it did in the 80s, the bears fast and lose about 2 pounds of body fat daily.
Because malnourished bears can experience reproductive failure, scientists have projected that polar bears could have disappeared from the Arctic almost entirely in 80 years time as the sea ice continues to diminish with climate change.