June 10, 2009
Scientist kills polar bear during first field experience
By Ned Rozell
Bob McNabb, 23, is just beginning what may be a long career studying glaciers. No matter how many seasons he spends on ice, he will probably never have a field experience like his first.
In May 2009, McNabb shot and killed a polar bear that was charging him outside a research station in Svalbard. The doctoral student observing an extremely far-north glacier in the Norwegian territory spoke about his experience when he returned to Fairbanks, where he studies at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
This spring, McNabb traveled to the island of Nordaustlandet in Svalbard. The Connecticut-size island is just 10 degrees latitude shy of the North Pole. An ice cap covers 80 percent of its land area. The few mammals on the island include walrus, arctic foxes, and polar bears. No people live there.
"It's one of the most remote places on Earth," said Regine Hock, McNabb's advisor and a scientist at the Geophysical Institute.
A research station built by Swedish, Finnish, and Swiss researchers for the 1957-1958 International Polar Year still stands on the island. It's called Kinnvika. The station, consisting of a main building, several others, and an outhouse, is right on the coast, where polar bears sometimes wander the beach. McNabb encountered the polar bear outside of one of the snow-drifted frame buildings.
McNabb woke in the chilly research station on the afternoon of May 10 after a long night in which he worked on nearby Franklinbreen Glacier. His coworkers, from universities in Sweden and Finland, were still sleeping when McNabb thought of heating water for coffee.
"I was getting wood together for the stove when I heard glass breaking in the hallway," McNabb said.
He heard more smashing, coming from the room where his shotgun leaned against a wall. He yelled out "Hello," and got no reply. Then, above the drifted snow on a window right next to him, he saw the polar bear's paws pressing against the glass. They were the size of dinner plates.
He slipped into the next room, the one with the broken windows and the shotgun, and picked up the gun. His mind raced at what to do next.
He remembered that one of his colleagues had shooed away a bear a few days earlier by starting a snowmachine and revving the engine. McNabb decided to cautiously step outside and start a machine. He thought the noise would also alert others to the bear's presence, and going outside seemed more logical than staying in the station.
"(The bear) seemed determined to get inside," McNabb said. "I did not want to be in the house with the bear, and I didn't want somebody else to come out of the sleeping hut (a nearby building) and walk right into it."
Slowly turning the door latch and pushing it open to the cold, McNabb didn't see the bear at first. Looking out, he noticed the closest snowmachine had a pull-rope start, rather than an electric start. He didn't want to risk taking the extra time to start the first machine, so he walked a few steps farther, toward the machine with a push-button starter.
"While I was going for the next one, the bear came around the corner," McNabb said.
The bear looked at McNabb from about 90 feet away. McNabb raised his shotgun and fired a warning shot into the air.
"It sniffed the air, looked at me, and then charged," McNabb said.
He raised the shotgun to his shoulder, firing four times at the white bear. The bear stopped its advance, growled, and shook its head. It turned away, ran about 120 feet, rolled over on the ground, and stopped moving.
McNabb ran back inside the building and reloaded his shotgun. He then went and told two Swedish logistic officers stationed there what had happened. Those men went out and confirmed the bear was dead. They then called the governor of Svalbard, who advised them to remove the bear's stomach before foxes began feeding on the carcass.
Preservation of the stomach was essential for determining the animal's condition for an investigation by government officials of Svalbard, where polar bears are protected.
"(Killing a polar bear) is assumed to be a crime until proven otherwise," said Hock, who taught in Svalbard earlier this year. "There's always a legal investigation."
A Svalbard police unit flew up to the Kinnvika station where McNabb shot the bear. They measured tracks as they recreated the incident, finding that the bear was about 60 feet distant when McNabb began shooting, and the bear turned away when it was 25 feet from McNabb's boots. Though the government officials have not yet ruled whether McNabb would be fined for shooting the bear, both McNabb and Hock said they believe the evidence for self-defense was obvious.
"They found it was a male with nothing in its stomach," McNabb said. "Before it tried to break into the building, it tried to eat two seats on the snowmachines. It was starving, I would guess, at that point."
McNabb, a native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, had recently taken the university's shotgun training course taught by Fairbanks resident Joe Nava; he had also practiced shooting both at the Svalbard city of Longyearbyen and at the Kinnvika station.
"It was a good thing I had both the shotgun class and the other shooting experiences," he said. "The class was the first time I'd picked up a gun in 13 years."
A few weeks after the experience, McNabb said, "the movie of it has stopped playing in my mind."
"After the bear fell down, I was still rushing on adrenaline, hoping the bear wasn't going to get back up," McNabb said. "Once I realized it was dead, I felt pretty sad about it."
This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.
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