A year of record warm temperatures and lower than normal sea ice has led to more polar bears than ever entering Greenland's communities. A WWF-supported patrol in the community of Ittoqqortoormiit, on the east coast, has encountered 20 polar bears in town in the past three months - more than twice the number of conflicts recorded in all of Greenland in 2012.
Polar bears prefer to spend their time on the sea ice, where they hunt for seals, their primary prey. However, longer ice-free seasons force the bears onto land for a longer period. In their search for food, they are drawn to communities on Greenland's coast.
The hungry bears have caused great concern among the less than 400 citizens of Ittoqqortoormiit, who risk encountering the dangerous predators on their way to school or work. The polar bear patrol, formed by the community and WWF, patrols Ittoqqortoormiit daily during the periods of highest conflict, and chases bears away so they aren't shot in self-defense.
Conflicts between people and bears are a growing problem in Ittoqqortoormiit, East Greenland. Here, Lea speaks about her experiences.
As temperatures rise and sea ice shrinks, the number of polar bears shot to protect life and property has also increased. 2014 was a record year, with at least 12 bears killed in Greenland for posing an imminent danger. The patrol is working to reduce this number.
Climate change creates risk of yet more conflict
But WWF expects even more polar bear visits this summer:
"We have had a winter with extremely little sea ice and an early melt, and so we expect a new record this season. Right now we are busy preparing and equipping the patrol. It is far from a safe job", says Kaare Winther Hansen, a biologist with WWF in Greenland.
This year, the patrol's equipment includes rubber bullets, bright lights and an ATV to scare the bears away from the community.
"We can see that the polar bear patrol benefits both locals and polar bears. We're hoping to extend the concept to other communities in Greenland where, unfortunately, the same problem is growing", says Hansen.
But polar bear patrols can only treat the symptom, and not the underlying problem, says Gitte Seeberg, Secretary General of WWF-Denmark. "The root cause is climate change, and we should do our absolute utmost to slow it down."
WWF is advocating for a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a move to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050, and for policies that help Arctic communities and wildlife cope with the consequences of climate disruption.