A massive power outage Sunday crippled Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — the world’s busiest — and left passengers stranded for hours as more than 1,100 flights were canceled amid the already-chaotic holiday travel season.
More than 4,000 miles away, an airport in Alaska experienced its own share of unexpected mayhem. This time in the form of two furry polar bears.
A video of the unexpected furry visitors running across the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport airfield in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, made the rounds on social media over the weekend after equipment operator Scott Babcock spotted them Thursday.
Babcock posted photos and video of the encounter to his Facebook page with the caption “FOD.” FOD, which stands for foreign object debris, is airport lingo for any object that doesn’t belong in or near airplanes and can potentially lead to damage or injury.
Babcock was wrapping up an early morning runway inspection and thought the creatures were initially wolves. When the bears saw his truck heading toward them, they ran off.
"Well, it's just another day at the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Airport," Babcock said.
In response to a comment accusing him of potentially harassing the bears by chasing them with his truck, Babcock said, "Polar bears on the airfield are a huge safety concern for their safety as well as those who work at the airport. Lots of things could go wrong very quick if someone stepped outside a building and encountered one of these guys especially if they were backed up against a fence. Animal control was called and they dealt with them."
He said he was driving four miles per hour when driving toward the bears and that they were “never in harms way from me.” Babcock added that he was happy the polar bears ran toward a snow dump instead of the airport or equipment.
This isn’t the first time the northernmost Alaskan community had issues with marine mammals at the airport near the sea.
In October, authorities had to remove a 450-pound bearded seal, the AP reported.
That day, Alaska state Department of Transportation warned airline pilots of "low sealings.”
But polar bears, which could weigh up to 1,600 pounds and come with claws, teeth and “sometimes lethal attitudes,” are a different story, AP reported.
“I’ve seen a few since I’ve been working at this airport,” Babcock said on Facebook in reponse to a commenter. “Down on the beach in the summer and tracks here and there. But it’s fairly rare to have them on the airfield itself.”
The bears can also be quite difficult to spot. "Those bears could be 40 yards away from you and you wouldn't know it," he said.
If someone walked out of building and was trapped between a polar bear and a fence, "things could get real ugly real fast," he said.
But the polar bear species (Ursus maritimus) are protected marine mammals and are currently listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Airport workers are not authorized to chase or harass them. If bears linger, they call in the wildlife management department of the North Slope Borough, Alaska's version of counties.
The species is considered vulnerable due to warming climates in recent years that have resulted in loss of sea ice. With the loss of sea ice, polar bears lose hunting grounds and have to swim farther for food, putting cubs, in particular, at risk, according to Live Science.
A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that the creatures also have to travel longer distances on foot over sea ice as the drift of the ice increases alongside melt and they end up spending more time on land.
While on land, they do adjust their diets to consume snow goose eggs, caribou and others, but scientists have found the calories from these food sources aren’t enough to cancel out the calories the polar bears burn from foraging.
In December, wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen shared a heartwrenching video of a starving polar bear he and his team from conservation group Sea Legacy came across when they arrived on Baffin Island in Canada in late summer.
"We stood there crying—filming with tears rolling down our cheeks," Nicklen said.
Read more about polar bears at nationalgeographic.com.
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