Tag Archives: Climate Change

Who’s Protecting The Polar Bears?

November 11, 2010

Bears and tracks in the snow

We woke up this morning to snow! Considering we’re in the Arctic, that shouldn’t be surprising nor cause for celebration, but the weather has been unseasonably warm for this time of year and that’s not ideal for the bears, so dropping temperatures and snow are a welcome relief.

The longer it takes for the ice to freeze, the longer the bears must wait to get the nourishment they need for the coming year. Earlier today, I was told that a beluga whale washed ashore this summer and that several bears fed off the whale, so they are in better shape than usual for this time of year. That said, others are not faring well.

Cub resting on mom

Depending on the length of time until the ice freezes, some bears won’t survive long enough to go out and hunt once the ice does freeze – the last time these bears ate was sometime early in the summer. This delayed freeze also necessitates that smaller bears, moms and cubs stay a safe distance away from large male bears whom pose a threat of potential cannibalism.

Hiding, trying to stay safe until the ice freezes

I’ve learned a lot during the past 2 days. Some of it fascinating, some of it disturbing, and much of it leaves me feeling conflicted.

 

 

 

Look at this picture (click thumbnail to enlarge):

Polar bears have become the icon for climate change issues and I understand why. If you think they’re “cute” or otherwise spectacular in pictures, that’s nothing compared to how exquisite they are in person.

Playful bears

Polar bears are strong, powerful, playful, tender, clever, and brave. At the same time, polar bears are exceptionally vulnerable. One “bad year” for polar bears can decrease their population significantly. As it stands, the polar bear population is on a steady decline, even during “good years.”  Some biologists estimate that, if things continue the way they’re going, we could have an ice-free Arctic within 40 years. In some Arctic regions, this could occur within the next 20 years.

Some effects of climate change that I’ve witnessed during my 3 visits to Churchill are:
• The ice is freezing later and later each season. This year, it’s already approximately 1 month later than the historical average for the ice to freeze, and it hasn’t frozen yet
• “Warm” temperatures and minimal snow on the ground in early November 2010
• An obvious decline in 2010 population of Arctic Fox due to lack of food source (lemmings) this year. We haven’t seen any Arctic Fox this year. People who have been here all season say they’ve seen very few Arctic Fox.
• Not as many bear sightings as previous years
• Bears with a lesser average weight than normal. Low body weight leads to population decline. i.e. Sows can’t get pregnant if they don’t weigh enough.

Being here in Churchill with the bears leaves me with the nagging question: Now that we’ve used polar bears to get people’s attention, who is protecting the bears?

More playful bears

The gift Churchill provides is that it offers an opportunity for people to witness polar bears in their natural habitat. This is important because when people observe the polar bears of Churchill, they have a tendency to talk about it. The messages and photos that reinforce the iconic use of the polar bear as a mascot for climate change are spread to mass consciousness as more and more people experience Churchill for themselves.

The power of these conversations and the sharing of information and experiences among friends, colleagues, families, and media is undeniable. I began this blog 3 years ago precisely so I could document these experiences and I’ve already been interviewed by journalists and by an author of a forthcoming book about polar bears.

There are also serious downfalls as a result of the success of polar bear tourism in Churchill. The main downfall is the impact the exploitation of this industry is having on the bears. During the course of this week alone I have witnessed:

• Photographers in vehicles chasing bears to various locations to obtain a desired photo. This is highly stressful to the bears and causes them to burn calories they need to be conserving until they can go out on the ice and hunt (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Private tour providers in vehicles physically “bumping” bears with cars

• Bears running toward staff vehicles of specific tour operators, signaling they’ve experienced some form of impact from people in these specific vehicles. They’re running up to the vehicles, not from them, which likely indicates they’ve received some reward (i.e. food) from people in these automobiles

•Photographers getting out of their cars and approaching bears within a few feet to get photos. You may think to yourself, “Well, if that idiot gets killed by a bear, that’s his own fault.” Yes, but if that idiot gets killed by a bear, then the bear also gets killed. So in the end, the bear still loses. (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Bears surrounded by cars, therefore unable to continue on their path (photo by: Alan Watson)

• Tundra buggy tracks leading off course, including one that appeared as if someone had done donuts in a buggy, on the tundra
• Tour operators with open food in close proximity of bears, so that the smell will lure the bears even closer to the vehicle/customers
• Tourists clapping and yelling at bears to “get their attention” or try to get them to come closer. This is happening on guided tours, with guides who should educate rather than tolerate this.
• Human food conditioning of bears (bears learning they can get food from people or as a result of people). i.e. enabling bears to eat “dog food” at a residence that also allows private tours on their property for published fees ranging from $500-$1,000 per person, per day
• Last year, we saw a photographer in a truck chase a bear into the water so that he could capture a picture of the bear swimming

The bear viewing industry in Churchill is having an obvious impact on the bears.

McNeil River Bears

Is it possible for people to be in close proximity of bears, without impact? There are definitely examples, such as the managed wildlife program at McNeil River, where if there is an impact, it’s absolutely imperceptible. I was fortunate enough to win the McNeil lottery this year and was able to visit the park that has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.

Mom and Cubs at McNeil River

The program at McNeil River is highly managed, educates people thoroughly to ensure the bears do not experience any impact – positive/reward or negative/fear from visitors. You can only get into the program by winning a random lottery. 10 people are allowed into the park at a time, in 4-day sessions. In my opinion, McNeil River is the epitomizing example of peaceful co-existence between different species. I believe the keys to the success of this program are restricted access, education, consistency, and respect. I will write a separate story about McNeil River soon.

Unfortunately, in Churchill, it’s likely too late for a program like the one at McNeil to be effective. Churchill bears are already conditioned to the impact visitors have had on them over time. They associate people with food and fear – reward and punishment. The program at McNeil was established more than 30 years ago and has been in affect since the first day visitors were allowed in the park.

There are several things that should be done on a global level, as well as numerous things that can be done in Churchill to help protect the bears. There is certainly some legislation that could be instituted and enforced on a local level. However, Churchill is a very small town and there are a lot of politics involved within the community that make this a challenge. Tour operations should be better regulated, tour operators better informed. But, again – even the “best” tour groups in Churchill have illustrated some intentional negative impact on the bears. Plus, “polar bear tourism” is one of only 3 primary sources of revenue in the small town. Therefore, implementing anything that is perceived as a threat to the viability of the business, likely won’t pass. As a result, these operations are creating an additional threat to the viability of polar bears.

There are plenty of people focusing on the “problems” and what we “can’t do.” So what can we do?

I do not claim to be an expert on this – these are merely my recommendations based on what I’ve learned and my experiences in Churchill for the past 3 years.

If you have plans to or would like to visit Churchill:

  1. Consider traveling with either The Great Bear Foundation with Chuck Jonkel or Ursus International with Rupert Pilkington. A lot of people come to Churchill on their own and arrange tours within Churchill themselves. From the math I’ve done, there doesn’t seem to be a financial benefit to this. More important, if you travel with one of these 2 organized groups, you are participating in an actual field course that includes education and experiential learning. What does this mean? Well, instead of counting how many bears you saw, you’ll be learning about the behaviors of the bears you’ve witnessed, Arctic ecology, Inuit culture, and what you can do to help preserve Arctic ecology.
  2. Seek out a holistic education about the Arctic including: Arctic ecology, the people and communities, history, the Northwest Passage, sources of income, and of course, polar bears
  3. Integrate the knowledge you’ve acquired through your experiences in Churchill
  4. When in Churchill, support the following businesses:
    1. The Eskimo Museum – a wonderful Inuit museum with great gift shop. The money from sales here goes directly back into the community
    2. The Northern Store – the one and only (grocery/convenience) store in Churchill open year-round. They also provide a lot of jobs for locals
    3. Northern Images – retail arm of Canadian co-ops limited. Revenue from sales here goes back to co-op. Everyone in the community is a member of co-op and they receive their dividends just in time for Christmas
    4. Wapusk – owned by Churchill locals who are in town year-round. They also run a dog sled tour business
  5. Do not feed the bears nor try to lure them over with any kind of food
  6. Do not approach bears
  7. If you see behavior that is harmful to the animals (i.e. baiting bears with food, harassing bears with vehicles, speeding up or taking “short cuts” to see a bear by chasing after it on a tundra buggy, etc) or Arctic ecology (i.e. destroying the tundra by driving tundra buggies off established paths), DOCUMENT IT. Take pictures or video. You should try to report it to local authorities in Churchill, but don’t stop there. Take the story outside of Churchill. Global attention and support will likely be more effective in facilitating a positive change than keeping it local.
  8. Do NOT visit Brian Ladoon’s “sled dog” property
  9. If you do decide to go on a tundra buggy, please request JP as your guide on Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Adventures. I rode with JP 2 years in a row – he stays on the path, he’s a great interpreter (you’ll learn more about the bears), he doesn’t put the buggy in the way of the path a bear is walking, he ensures passengers are respectful and quiet around the bears, he stays away from bears that seem distressed. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for other guides I’ve had. It’s worth waiting for JP’s availability or not going out on a tundra buggy at all

Tour operators want you to have a good time; they want you to see a lot of bears. You will pay a considerable amount of money for this experience and it’s important that it doesn’t happen at the expense of the well-being of polar bears. Come to Churchill to support them, not to participate in their demise.

The amount of negative impact this experience can have on the bears is up to you. If a tour operator is doing any of the following things, it is NOT ok:

  • Baiting bears to a location or vehicle with food or food smells (opening food containers near bears)
  • Allowing passengers to clap at and yell to the bears to try to “get their attention” or get them to come closer
  • Obstructing or intersecting the path/course a polar bear is walking
  • Chasing after polar bears
  • Getting out of the vehicle in close proximity to the bears
  • Tundra buggy drivers driving off the designated course and established paths

Not everyone will be able to see polar bears in Churchill, so here are some things you can do to help, no matter where you live:

  • Here are some simple, easy, things you can do to minimize your carbon footprint from Polar Bears International and Stop Global Warming
  • If you’re looking to support an organization that provides year-round education and implementation of programs that support and protect wildlife, I highly recommend Greatbear.org.
  • Learn as much as you can about current and pending legislation re: climate change, oil drilling, wildlife protection. Know who your state and local representatives are so you can reach out to them about these issues
  • Help me take this story global — we need international support to protect the bears.  I can be reached at: colette@mytraveltales.com

These guys are counting on US:


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Doing More For Polar Bears

November 14, 2009
Churchill, Manitoba

Today was our final day in Churchill.  It always seems to come to a close too quickly.  As we ventured out, another group arrived to take our place at the Studies Center.  Depending on the weather, it’s possible the bears will only be on land for another few days or a week before the ice freezes and they’re able to commence their hunting and feeding season.

Churchill Candlestick Sunset

Churchill Candlestick Sunset

When we were reunited with our peers last night, those of us who went on the tundra buggy yesterday learned that the rest of the group also experienced a magical day.  They too were treated to a bear approaching the bus in close proximity and a display of bears sparring just off the side of the road.  And, of course, the candlestick sunset was in view to all those who were fortunate enough to be outside last night.  Unobstructed by large buildings and developments, Churchill sunsets are spectacular and seem to overtake the entire skyline, not just the West coast.

Another bear visited us at the Studies Center last night.  Most of us were upstairs for the evening’s class and did not see the bear.  However, a few members of our group, too tired to focus on the evening’s lessons, were resting in the quiet lounge and were again surprised by a bear that pressed its face up against the window.  J.D, Logan, Deborah, and David notified Studies Center staff about the bear and were able to capture a few pictures before the bear was scared off once more.  I saw some of the pictures and if any are emailed to me, I’ll post them here.  Again, the zoo imagery struck me with irony.  Although Studies Center staff couldn’t allow the bear to remain in such close proximity, I was happy we got to experience the feeling of being locked behind bars while a large, potentially dangerous creature observed us curiously.

polar bear close up

Polar bear close-up

We saw a few bears today, including another that walked right up to the window of our bus.  The bear got so close that we were instructed to close our windows.  After some bear observations, we pulled off the side of the road to build an igloo.  Chuck instructed us about how to cut and stack the ice to create the igloo structure.  Once built, we took turns crawling inside the igloo to get a sense of the warmth and cover it offered from the elements.  Chuck told a story about an igloo he built a couple years ago.  He said that it was so cold and stormy out that as soon as he completed the igloo an Arctic fox darted inside and curled up.

igloo building

Building an igloo

It was noticeably colder today, with fog and snow drifting around us.  We took a walk through the forest while Chuck pointed out the vegetation and various food sources it offers Arctic critters like hares and foxes.  We picked and tasted crowberries.  This forest outing was more pleasant than last year’s version that had us standing in 30 below temperatures, among several feet of snow.

On our way back to the center we stopped by a crashed plane that remains untouched among the rocks and terrain of Churchill.  The plane has been nicknamed “Miss Piggy” and ironically crashed in 1979 while carrying a large load of soda rumored to be Coca Cola (a company that adopted polar bears as its mascot) over the region.  I’m not sure why the plane hasn’t been hauled away, but it’s quite a sight to see lodged among the rocks.

We went back to the Studies Center, had a nice meal, and gathered our luggage.  Our departure from the Studies Center was delayed briefly when, once again, we were visited by a polar bear. After the bear moved out of the area and we could safely leave the Center, we headed for the train station. We passed by our igloo on the way to the train station and pulled over to have another look.  It was dark outside so Chuck crawled inside the igloo and illuminated it with a flashlight so we could get a sense of how it would look with a fire burning inside.  We boarded the train, most of us expressing sadness to be departing the wonder of Churchill and the polar bears.

I was heartbroken to be leaving.  Throughout the duration of our stay, we learned more about the political issues in Churchill that make it difficult to further protect the bears and prosecute some of the unscrupulous people that are exploiting them.  Tourism generated by people wanting to see the polar bears is the primary source of revenue for the town, so people are resistant to further regulate tour operations.  There’s a lot that needs to be done for the polar bears of Churchill, both locally and globally.  There are initiatives I’d like to become more involved in, some that are more challenging to take on from a distance.  Having witnessed the corruption of some tour operators and photographers, I began contemplating what it would be like if all humans left the Churchill area and let polar bears live undisturbed.  The bears would still face the threats of our global impact on the Arctic region, but it seems several unnecessary day-to-day stresses would be eliminated without our presence on their land.

On the flip-side, it could be argued that studying the bears is a necessary means to help sustain their population.  And I know from personal experience that my encounters with polar bears have sparked positive lifestyle changes in those I’ve shared stories with and those whom have read my blog.  I certainly intend to make this annual journey for as long as the trip is offered and the bears are in existence.  At the same time, I’d love to see some additional regulations implemented by the town of Churchill.  Perhaps they could institute limited visitor permits, impose a tax on tour operators to accrue more funds to help study and sustain the bear population in the area, fine and prosecute those who bait bears for personal gain and profit . . .

bear eyes

An important question

The vivid dream I had that sparked my initial Arctic expedition one year ago involved an interaction with the last polar bear on Earth.  He was sitting on the last piece of remaining ice, looking at me as if to say, “What are you going to do?”  As I looked into the eyes of the polar bears we encountered during this  year’s journey, I saw them asking the same question.

I intend to become more informed about the local issues in Churchill. I intend to find out how, as the people bringing an influx of revenue-generating business to the area, we can further influence additional changes to help protect the polar bear population in Churchill.  I am also committed to further personal lifestyle changes to minimize my impact on climate change, as well as becoming more informed and involved in the global issues that threaten the sustainability of the polar bear population.

What are you going to do?

Looking Into The Eyes of Polar Bears

November 12, 2009
Churchill, Manitoba

bear gazing at water

Bear gazing at the Bay

Last night, prior to our Northern Lights outing, Chuck taught us about Arctic ecology. We learned about some of the factors contributing to climate change and why the Arctic region is so vulnerable. The opening up of the Northwest Passage and increased offshore drilling put this area at further risk. Chuck encouraged us to learn more about Russia’s direct involvement in this area as well as becoming more informed about Alaska’s offshore drilling and hunting policies. Chuck mentioned that one massive oil spill in the Arctic would be enough to destroy the region. He also stated that if policies remain consistent and without better regulation, the entire population of Polar Bears in Alaska could be extinct within 5 years.

I wanted to get a sense of the number of bears in the Churchill region and to get a better understanding of the threat to the Churchill bear population. Are the Churchill polar bears in as grave danger as those in Alaska? I asked several biologists in Churchill as well as a representative from Polar Bears International about the current population of polar bears in the region. Estimates ranged from 600 to 900 polar bears depending on the source. The Hudson Bay extends further South than other Arctic regions and is also where the ice freezes first, so bears migrate here from both the North and the South to get out on the ice and hunt seals. This migration and the decrease in funded research makes it difficult to know for sure how many bears are “residents” of Churchill versus those passing through to hunt seals when the ice freezes. While it’s difficult to get an exact count of the polar bear population in Churchill, everybody seemed to agree that it’s fewer than 1,000 bears.

Polar bear eyes

Face to face with a polar bear

Having spent the past 2 days (and several days last year) gazing into the eyes of polar bears it saddened me greatly to have an even better understanding of their potential demise. Having an awareness of the climate change issues facing the Arctic region is different from experiencing its impact first-hand. There are things we can do individually to help decrease our contribution to climate change: utilizing high efficiency appliances, light bulbs and low-flow or dual flush toilets; walking or cycling when possible instead of driving; ensuring car tires are properly inflated for maximum fuel efficiency; offsetting our carbon footprint by contributing to clean energy alternatives, etc. Stop Global Warming lists several simple actions we can take as individuals to minimize our personal impact. Climate change is also a global issue – there’s a need for tighter regulations of offshore drilling, it would behoove North America to take a more vested interest in Russia and their perceived “ownership” of Arctic waters. We can pressure our government representatives about these issues, those of us that are eligible can run for political office, we can help educate people about these issues (as Chuck continues to educate those of us in his Arctic Ecology Field Course).

bear with bone

Bear with bone in mouth

With the reminder of threats facing the polar bears and Arctic ecology fresh in mind, we set out for another day of bear watching. We tracked one bear that seemed to be on a mission, with a very clear path. He moved swiftly over the snow and rocks, pausing every few minutes to sniff the air before taking his next step. The sense of smell is a polar bear’s strongest sense – it’s how they locate a suitable food source, typically seals. It’s estimated that polar bears sense of smell can range several miles, including underground and through the thick Arctic ice. The large bear made its way toward another bear that was sleeping at the base of rocky hill. We thought perhaps there could be an interaction between the bears – maybe some sparring. Instead, the bear found a large leg bone of an unidentifiable animal. Based on the length and structure of the leg bone Chuck guessed it could have come from a caribou. The bone was out of place and it’s speculated that it was bait placed by tour operators or photographers to lure the bears closer to areas accessible for public viewing.

One of the most disturbing things I noticed during this trip is the double-message humans are sending to bears. There are various methods of baiting bears that we observed, all of which lead the bears closer to human interaction. Yet when a bear gets “too close” people shoot flares and cracker shots at it. If a bear is considered to be a nuisance, it’s darted and placed in Polar Bear Jail where it sits caged, in a metal and concrete building, until the ice freezes and it can be transported further from town. Sometimes bears are transferred from jail before the ice freezes, but as long as a bear is in jail we’ve removed it from its natural life cycle, rhythm and interactions with other bears.

The alternative to bear jail is likely that the bears would be shot and killed. So while the jail is a more humane and preferred method of limiting unwelcome human-bear interactions, it’s our responsibility as people invading the bear’s habitat to minimize the number of bears that end up in jail each year. The more responsible we are with our human behavior, the less likely polar bears will engage in unwanted bear behavior.

Little bear gets out of the way

Little bear moves away from the larger bear

We watched the two bears, as the larger bear inspected the leg bone, the smaller bear that had been there first slowly walked away. The smaller bear instinctively knew it was no competition for the large bear and that it needed to move out of the way and let the large bear have the bone. As the bigger bear gnawed on the bone, the little bear maintained a substantial distance and stood submissively, head down.

We continued driving the roads of Churchill and observing numerous bears. We saw bears crossing the road to get closer to the shore, conserving energy and resting, testing the strength of the ice and generally preparing for the imminent hunting season. It took longer for the ice to freeze last year so the bears got a late start. Luckily, the ice remained intact later into the Spring than usual, allowing some moms and new cubs additional hunting time upon emerging from their dens toward the end of the season. This additional time to hunt helped further sustain the adult polar bear population as well as that of the young cubs. We’ve seen a few skinny bears during this trip, but all in all, the bears seem to be in better shape and stronger than they were last year at the same time.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset before returning to the Studies Center for another informative evening lecture followed by the ritual late-night gathering in the kitchen.

Churchill Sunset

Churchill Sunset

Taking Action for Polar Bears

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

My Arctic Adventures Blog featured on MySpace

I woke up this morning to an email from MySpace – they’re featuring my blog on their Our Planet channel: http://www.myspace.com/ourplanet.  Many thanks to MySpace for sharing these stories and helping spread awareness about polar bears and how we can all help preserve the Arctic region.

Also, big thanks to Chuck (Dr. Jonkel), Shannon, Matt and everyone at The Great Bear Foundation for the amazing experience and sharing their wealth of knowledge.

The main reason I spent 8 days on planes, buses, and trains, traveling to the Arctic was to experience first-hand the affects of climate change on polar bears and Arctic ecology.  It seems awareness of climate change has increased and more and more people know that the survival of polar bears is threatened, but it can still feel like “a problem over there” — not part of our day to day consciousness.  I don’t believe this is malicious, it just isn’t top-of-mind for many people, most of the time.  I live in LA where it’s 73 degrees and beautiful almost every day of the year.  It’s hard to expect everyone in LA to think about ice caps melting and polar bears heading toward extinction, on a day to day basis.  People all over the world are consumed with their own survival, happiness, and daily responsibilities – global warming is not top-of-mind, even though they’re aware of it.

The thing to remember is that it’s all connected. The way we live, wherever we live, has an impact on the environment as a whole, which in turn has an impact on us. Dr. Jonkel (Chuck) reminded us that people are wasting time debating whether Global Warming is something people are causing or just “part of mother nature’s natural cycle.” He encouraged us to recognize that both points of view are valid – some of the climate change we see is mother nature “doing her thing” AND some of it is caused or accelerated by what we’re doing. All Chuck asked of us is that we help the part that we can control – the impact we have on the earth and the things we can do to minimize that.

Several groups have put together lists of simple steps to combat global warming in our everyday life. Stop Global Warming has a great list: http://www.stopglobalwarming.org/sgw_actionitems.asp

The NRDC is also doing work on climate change: http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/default.asp

Global Warming Solution is a Missoula, Montana based organization founded by a Great Bear alum. Their executive summary is really helpful:

http://www.globalwarmingsolution.org/pdf/Summary.pdf

Global Warming Initiatives, Inc is a really cool company that helps businesses to reduce their carbon footprint while at the same time saving money on energy efficiency:

http://www.gwi-nc.org/

The lists of simple steps are great in that they are easy to achieve and anybody can do things like switch to energy efficient light bulbs, etc. And if we get enough people to do these things, we can make a difference.

We can also support initiatives like the Western Climate Change Initiative:

http://www.westernclimateinitiative.org/

This is an alliance of seven western states and two canadian provinces working on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We can pressure our schools, workplaces, and local and state governments to conduct greenhouse gas inventories, to determine how much impact they are having and how they can reduce that impact. It often saves money in the long run on energy costs.

The bumper sticker, “think globally, act locally” has never meant as much as it does today. The average meal travels 1,500 miles to our dinner plates, consuming fossil fuels for transport, processing, refrigeration, etc. One of the biggest changes we can make in our everyday lives is to buy locally, eat locally, and eat seasonally. By gardening or participating in CSA’s, we not only reduce the fossil fuels used to feed ourselves, but the plants we grow also help to produce clean air and to sequester carbon. Can or dry the extra food from your harvest, and you can eat your bounty year round. Grow squashes, potatoes, and other hardy vegetables that can grow late in the season and keep throughout the winter.

Chuck would say that one of the most important things we can do is to raise awareness of the polar regions. There are few people living up there, and their voices are rarely heard. Most people think of the north as a barren waste of ice. The more people learn about the Arctic, the more they will care about it. That’s the point of Chuck’s “Learning to Talk Arctic” lecture. As people become more familiar with the polar regions, they will care more.

I fell in love with polar bears during this trip.  I stood 30 feet away from them and watched in awe as they played, searched for alternative food sources, and walked across the ice with power and grace. I think about them every time I put gas in my car or ask a business to turn off the air conditioning when it’s cold outside (and inside). I think about the collective positive impact we can have by taking simple steps in our own lives and educating (and sometimes pressuring) business owners to make positive changes.  And then I do everything I can to help ensure the survival of polar bears and make a positive impact on the Earth.

Curious Bear

Curious Bear

Learning About Polar Bears With Ian Stirling

Mid-way through our stay in Churchill we discovered that Ian Stirling was coming to town and would be giving a lecture on polar bears and climate change the night we were scheduled to return home.  This was one of those moments you’re thrilled that your train is 7 hours delayed! Ian Stirling is a renowned scientist who has been studying polar bears and Arctic ecology for more than 30 years.  Thanks to train delays, we were able to attend Ian’s lecture.  When Ian saw Chuck in the audience he told a story about how Chuck once led him into a bear den… while the bear was still in the den.

Here are some video clips (2 parts) of the lecture.  These are some general facts about polar bears, their reproductive cycles, and their place in the food chain.  

Ian Stirling Lecture Part 1

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXfw2G9-_3U]

Ian Stirling Lecture Part 2

Videos: Hanging Out With Polar Bears

These videos were taken during our second to last polar bear outing.  Prior to this day, it was 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit which was too warm for the ice to form and move to the shore of The Hudson Bay. Polar bears rely on this ice so they can go out and hunt. Thankfully, as we were leaving Churchill a cold storm moved in.  Locals were enthusiastic and hopeful that this storm would finally bring the ice to shore so the bears could eat. The bear’s hunting season is getting shorter each year – the ice shelf forming later and breaking up an average of 2-3 weeks earlier than it used to. 

The first video shows a polar bear seemingly walking with a destination in mind, but he stops for a playful time out before continuing on his way.  

The next video shows a bear shielding himself during a windstorm and 19 degrees below temperatures!

We only saw one mother bear with a cub during our trip.  And days when we saw 8 bears, we should have seen 20-30 bears according to Dr. Jonkel (“Chuck”) who has been leading this trip for 25 years. Chuck made sure we understood this is not a good sign.  It’s not only further evidence that the polar bear population is decreasing, but indicates that reproduction is decreasing as well. 

So, what can we do? That’s coming next!

Learning How To Talk Arctic

Several people have asked where I was, geographically, during the polar bear trip.  It’s hard for most people to picture how far North we were. Our location in Churchill, Manitoba (on the Hudson Bay) is important because this is where the ice forms earliest.  The bears rely on the formation of the ice shelf so they can go out and hunt.  So the bears come here first to await the formation of the sea ice.  It’s also important because there are some pending international decisions that affect this region. Here’s a map to give a better sense of where we were and how this plays into foreign policy that affects the polar bears:

Churchill, Manitoba

Churchill, Manitoba

On the evening of November 12th, following a day of Arctic adventure and spotting bears, Dr. Charles Jonkel (“Chuck”) taught us about the relevance of where we were sitting and some critical changes and decisions that will affect the polar bears.  

Chuck explained that the Polar Basin is actually quite small.  We need to do more than we’re doing now to preserve the ecology here. We need to increase awareness and let people know how to impact positive change. The polar bear is particularly vulnerable. It’s a rare example of a terrestrial animal that lives on a food source under the ice – the ringed seal.  The polar bear is an animal that depends on 2 totally different environments to survive, which makes it vulnerable in 2 ways: threats to its environment and threats to the environment of its food chain. 

Chuck spoke about the crucial stretch of the Northwest Passage, which was blocked for 65,000- 100,000 years with old ice, unusable.  About 15 years ago Americans discovered the Northwest Passage. Canada claims the Northwest Passage (including Hudson Bay) belongs to them, but this is in dispute with other countries that border these waters including America and Russia.  The ice in the Northwest Passage melted out 3 summers ago, bringing Asia and North America 2,000-4,000 miles closer (because now we can cut straight through, instead of having to go around).  This will have a huge impact on shipping industries, importing and exporting.  Now there’s major money involved and countries are battling over this region. There are no treaties  governing the area yet, but they will be written and countries will be fighting for control.  It’s important that we understand the politics at play here because the countries that border this region will have tremendous impact on the Arctic ecology (for better or worse). 

Other information Chuck shared with us during this lecture are: 

  • It’s harder for bears to get to their food source (seals) in Alaska now. Cubs and moms can’t swim 100-125 miles.  Jonkel thinks it’s possible there will be no more bears in Alaska in 5 years.
  • The bear population is decreasing in Churchill as well.  10 years ago we would have seen 35 bears today.  We saw bears today, but not 35 (approx 8).
  • Last June Russia started drilling off-shore.  They hired a company to teach them how to do it (“a non-conscious French company”). They turned down an offer from Chevron who was trying to teach them responsible ways to drill.  Instead, they’re working with people who are not concerned about protecting the ecology.
  • Fishing boats are coming in and competing with the polar bear’s foodchain.  Millions of dollars are involved in shipping areas so there’s going to be a big fight if we want to regulate this to help preserve the environment. 
  • Greenland is 5 times as big as Montana, with 2 miles thick of ice.  The ice is melting.  Greenland controls what happens with continental glaciacian.  We’re at the tail end of the 4th continental ice age. There could be a 5th one.  Greenland is functioning as a thermostat – could trigger a 5th ice age. 

Chuck suggested we continue to learn about this region and pending policies that impact it.  He prompted us to write letters to the Russian and Canadian governments.  If nothing else, LEARN about it. Chuck said the reason he was “teaching us to talk Arctic” is because when people hear something they don’t understand, they tend to tune it out.  He wants us to be familiar with the region, the terminology, the animal and plant life so that we can participate in the discussion.