Polar Bear Attacks

How likely is a polar bear attack? And what's the best way to protect yourself in an encounter? Bear expert Tom Smith provides answers.

Answered by Dr. Tom Smith, professor of biological sciences at Brigham Young University and a scientific advisor to PBI.

Q: I'm going camping in the Arctic this summer and want to be prepared for encounters with polar bears. How often do polar bears attack? And what can I do to avoid one?

A: The likelihood of being attacked by a polar bear is very rare. There are only one to three instances a year, worldwide.

It's important to remember that polar bears are very curious. In a world of ice blocks and ice holes, anything else gets their attention.

Attack circumstances are always related to the way people are camping or to people predisposing themselves to a problem. And with more polar bears driven ashore as the sea ice melts, the chances for encounters increase.

A campsite is an attractive nuisance. It has bright-colored tents, unusual odors and sounds. A polar bear is an animal that routinely investigates its environment. If you haven’t taken proper measures, you are at risk.

A lot of attacks happen at night. Bears come in to investigate when there is no movement or sound. They are very risk adverse, so they wait until it’s quiet to let their curiosity take over. The town of Churchill, for example, sits on the polar bear's migration route and is a huge attractant, filled with novel things. A lot of bears have never seen a building and they are somewhat emboldened to investigate.

As a species, we humans are smart enough not to put ourselves at risk, but sometimes we don’t take the proper precautions. We can’t be surprised when bears do what they do. The attacks I’ve researched aren’t from sick bears, or bears on the edge, they are the result of bears being bears.

To avoid or survive an attack, first, never go into bear country without a deterrent—either bear spray or firearms. Bear spray, also called pepper spray or capsicum deterrent, is a form of pepper spray used as a tool to minimize injury due to bear-human conflict. It is sprayed at a bear within close range and burns its eyes, nose, and mouth, but causes no lasting damage.

Bear spray is 98 percent effective in all bear cases I studied and has shown promise with polar bears. In two instances of curious polar bears approaching, the bears were deterred by the spray. There's no reason to think that pepper spray would be less effective on polar bears than on other bears. There are only three cases where a person had bear spray and was still mauled (none of these were fatal).

Firearms are 76 percent effective, but people aren’t trained to shoot something that is chasing them down and trying to eat them. Culturally, it is more difficult to get people to carry bear spray instead of a firearm, even though bear spray is more effective and easier to use.

Signal flares are also very effective if the bear is outside of bear spray range (about 20 feet). Flares have a 300-foot reach and are waterproof. Bears have a problem with screaming fireballs; that almost always settles it.

Second, if you must go out at night in polar bear country, carry a deterrent, don’t be drunk, and pay attention to your surroundings. Remember, the risk of getting in trouble is much greater at night.

Third, if camping, string an electric fence around your camp. An electric fence costs $100, which is a lot less than the value of all the stuff in a camp and certainly of your life.

Why wouldn’t you protect yourself? The odds of a polar bear attack are low, but they aren’t zero.