Siege of the Polar Bears
Credit: RGB Ventures LLC / Alamy
One day I spent a few hours with Paul Aningat, a weather observer at Arviat's airport, asking about bear sightings and climate change. The observation room is on the second floor of the tiny airport terminal, overlooking the compressed-snow runway. A binocular telescope on a tripod points at the horizon; two computer monitors display data from exterior instruments. Beyond the runway, in all directions: a flat white plain.

Aningat, who is 49, told me that he had to be at his post by sunup, and that bears tend to be most active at night. "When I walk to work, I always say, 'Here goes nothing!'" he said. "But we see them even in daytime now. Few days ago, Thursday, a bear walked right into town from the north. Right in the afternoon!"

Aningat has been watching global warming work its changes for some time: "I just saw a red fox – first time I ever saw a red fox in my life around here. Most of the time you see white foxes; that's it. Never saw a martin around here in my life, till last year. Maybe since 2002, I started seeing American bald eagles. Nothing before that. One of the hunters, a few years ago, shot a moose. Up here. First time I heard of anyone shooting a moose up here."

For most of Aningat's life, the bay froze by late September and didn't melt until late May or June. It was now late November, and although the shelf ice had taken hold, the bay still hadn't frozen completely.

I asked Aningat about the bear on the runway the day I flew in. It was a seven-footer, he said. Earlier that day, a younger bear had come within 30 feet of the terminal. "Wait!" he said, and turned up the volume on the radio, which was tuned to the community station. Paul Aliktiluk was speaking animatedly in Inuktitut. "This guy's talking about a bear," Aningat said – one had just entered town. He grabbed a pair of binoculars, jumped up on an empty desk against the town-facing wall, and began scanning the streets through a high rectangular window. "I saw the third one around 8 am right over there," he said, "and this time last year I saw 14 in one day alone."

He turned around on the desk, looked out over the runway with the binoculars, and quickly jumped down again. "There's a bear maybe three miles from here right now," he said. He adjusted the binocular telescope. "Here, look," he said. After a while I made out a bearish shape halfway to the horizon.

"It's heading down the bay," he said. "And last Friday night, last week, there were six right behind the community center."

Aningat proceeded to list all the bears he'd personally seen since September. There were dozens.

I'd barely gotten into my truck to leave when Aningat ran out the terminal doors. "Do you want to see a bear?" he yelled. We hurried back upstairs and jumped on his desk. At the edge of town, a bear was smoothly cantering toward a sled-dog enclosure on the bay. It investigated briefly and then headed for open water.