Northern lights dancing across the night sky. Caribou roaming across the tundra. The first polar bear of the season napping near the shores of Hudson Bay.

Every year, Polar Bears International organizes training sessions for zoo and aquarium professionals on how to talk with the public about climate change — an important undertaking given the reach and cachet of zoos.

This year, our marketing associate, Jenna Beckley, joined the group for the training, which began with online modules and ended with a week in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, at the start of polar bear season. We caught up with Jenna to talk about the experience and all she learned.

Jenna Beckley on the Tundra

Photo: Kayla McCurry / Polar Bears International

Q: Before you traveled to Churchill to experience the tundra first-hand, the group took part in online training. What was that like?

The training gave us such a solid foundation! I already knew a lot about polar bears, sea ice, and climate change after working for Polar Bears International for a year, but still found the training super helpful. In addition, our friends at NNOCCI (the National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation) partnered with us on a seven-week crash course in climate communications, using tested language and messaging. The last week focused on how to pivot from climate impacts to climate solutions – which is so important in motivating people to get involved.

Q: After the training, your group met in Winnipeg, Canada, the gateway to Churchill. Can you tell us about that?

I have to confess I was a bit nervous about meeting everyone. I knew I’d be joining about 25 zoo educators from the U.S., Canada, and Europe – and that they all had zoo knowledge and a background in education. I also knew that, at 23, I’d be the youngest one there. But everyone was so kind and curious about my role at Polar Bears International, and we soon found common ground. 

Meeting in Winnipeg gave us the chance to get to know each other before heading for Churchill. The Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq has a large Inuit art collection that I really enjoyed. Another highlight was a presentation by Dr. Evan Richardson of Environment and Climate Change Canada about his research with polar bears and collaborative work with Polar Bears International. Evan used a scientific flowchart to show the impacts of climate change on polar bears. I was able to transform this into a graphic that could be used in print or on social media to help a general audience relate to and understand the nuanced science. Taking scientific concepts and finding new ways to communicate them is a major part of my job, and I shared the chart with the group as an example of how graphics can assist education and outreach efforts.

Q: From there, it was on to Churchill. Did it meet your expectations?

From the moment we got on a prop plane to go to Churchill, I felt a shift in the environment. None of us except the facilitators had been there before and we were all so excited. After landing, we headed out on one of the Tundra Buggies and spent the first two days at the Tundra Buggy® Lodge. I found it absolutely stunning to be there and to finally have a chance to experience the tundra after hearing so much about it over the past year. Out on the lodge, everyone really bonded: There we were, on a Tundra Buggy in Churchill, seeing a polar bear in the wild for the first time!

Polar Bear on the shoreline near open water

Photo: Jenna Beckley / Polar Bears International

Q: What were some of the highlights for you? 

I’ve had a hard time explaining it. Every single moment felt so important — whether we were learning from an Indigenous Knowledge Keeper in Churchill or watching wildlife on the tundra. 

It was early in the season, so we didn’t see a lot of polar bears. But we did spot one hanging out by the shore. We also saw a lot of red foxes, large flocks of ptarmigan, plus caribou, snow geese, and snow buntings. I also loved seeing the lichens, the fall colors, and the tundra before it’s covered in snow.

The northern lights were incredibly moving. I’ve wanted to experience them since I was a kid, and it was amazing to see them in real life. They brought me to tears. We saw them three different times. On our last night, we had a crazy show at the Churchill Northern Study Center (CNSC) that went on for about six hours. It started with bands of purple then faded to green and became bright green. I learned that you’re more likely to see northern lights early in the season because the sky usually isn’t cloudy due to the condensation that occurs when the ice starts to form over the Hudson Bay.

I also found the town of Churchill fascinating – seeing how the people have adapted to the climate and to the possibility of a polar bear walking down the street.

On our last morning in Churchill, we had in-depth conversations as a group about climate change and the fragile Arctic ecosystem and had a chance to practice sharing what we’d learned. Everyone felt prepared to return home and speak eloquently about the threats to polar bears and the need to act on climate. And all of us plan to stay in touch – sharing information and supporting each other in our outreach.

Northern Lights over Churchill

Photo: Shervin Hess / Oregon Zoo

Q: Any parting thoughts?

I genuinely can’t believe my Climate Alliance experience was real. I feel more fulfilled than I have in my entire life. A part of my heart will always belong with the bears and with Polar Bears International. It’s hard to put into words, but I feel energized, empowered, and lucky to be alive!

We are immensely grateful to our valued partners, Platinum Sponsor Canada Goose and Diamond Sponsor Frontiers North Adventures (FNA). FNA donated the use of their Tundra Buggies and the Tundra Buggy® Lodge to Climate Alliance participants, and Canada Goose provided them with warm parkas during their week in Churchill. We’re also grateful to Courtyard by Marriott Winnipeg Airport Hotel and Calm Air for discounted lodging and flights. And, finally, we wish to thank our education partners: the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI), Manitoba Conservation, and Parks Canada.