Churchill’s bear season is aptly named – it’s the time of year when polar bears in the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation congregate near the mouth of the Churchill River, knowing the fresh water will help this area freeze faster than the rest of their known habitat, giving them access to their seal prey. Bear season is the time of year when people from all over the world visit this small community, in hopes of seeing these great white bears in person. 

Polar Bears International had been working in Churchill for decades before their interpretive centre, Polar Bears International House, was built in 2019. The center offers visitors a free educational experience to learn about the science behind the animal that they’ve come to Churchill to see. It has also allowed Polar Bears International to expand their field ambassador program, which gives zoo professionals and graduate students studying polar bears the chance to visit Churchill, fine-tune their science communication skills, and meet others in their field. Prior to the PBI House opening, field ambassadors engaged with visitors while out on Tundra Buggies with Frontiers North Adventures. On the buggies, they gave talks to tourists about their work and Polar Bears International’s conservation efforts, as well as provided context to the bears they may see each day. Joining the Tundra Buggies is still part of the work of a field ambassador, but now so is giving interpretive talks at the PBI House to tourists.

Field Ambassador Larissa Thelin speaks with guests in the PBI House

Photo: Larissa Thelin / Polar Bears International

Larissa Thelin speaks with guests in the Polar Bears International House in Churchill, Manitoba.

At the end of 2021, while working on my MSc studying polar bear and harp seal space use at the University of Alberta, I was offered the opportunity to partake in the field ambassador program. It was exactly what I needed at that time. I had spent two years researching this animal behind a computer screen and even more practicing the art of communicating climate change science to the general public. At the time, though, I was beginning to wonder what the point of my education was. I was confronted with an existential question – did the world really need another paper proving that polar bears were negatively influenced by the loss of sea ice? Sure, there are always new things to learn about an animal or its habitat, but it seemed as though we knew everything we needed to know about the poster child of climate change. Yet, collectively, we aren’t doing enough to save it.

That first two-week trip to Churchill made me realize the point of my schooling and research – to understand a topic enough to be able to teach it. Pulling from years of knowledge, I learned to construct a story of polar bears and climate change that anyone without a science background could digest and take home to share with their own networks. Finally, I felt as though my work was useful. 

I agreed to return for two more two-week trips to Churchill in 2022, a month in Svalbard (Norway) this past summer, and then almost six weeks in Churchill again this fall. This most recent trip was a new experience for me as I was now entrusted to help train new field ambassadors. These experts joined me out on the Tundra Buggies where I introduced them to the many drivers, guides, and mechanics that keep Frontiers North Adventures running each season. They also watched me lead hour-long talks to tour groups in the interpretive center. I shared with them my love for science communication and for polar bears. I also tried to show them that despite our own anxieties and imposter syndromes, we all deserved to be there. It began to open the door to having some honest conversations about our mental health.

Field Ambassador Larissa Thelin on a Tundra Buggy with a Polar Bear Skull

Photo: Jeff Hidgon

Larissa Thelin shares information on polar bear biology with guests aboard a Frontiers North Adventures Tundra Buggy.

In each of the trips I’ve taken to Churchill I fully dive into the work, learning as much content as I can, watching and absorbing the ways that other field ambassadors communicate, and expanding my professional network. But this time, I also learned to be transparent about the way that this work impacts me, allowing me to connect to field ambassadors in a more authentic way. Polar Bears International’s field ambassador program is the perfect space for young scientists to develop science communication skills. It is where we go to transform from solely scientists to true conservationists. It is rewarding work, but it also comes with a toll. Because what does it say about our society when scientists feel forced to step into communication roles? What does it say when our science is not enough to enact change? 

Climate change communicators, like those of us that spend time in Churchill teaching about this incredible predator and its fate, are continually repeating ourselves. I always leave Churchill feeling as though I’ve done something useful towards the mitigation of climate change and the protection of the future of polar bears because I’ve shared their story with hundreds of people, many of them new to this information. It enriches my hope for our planet and my determination to continue to do this work. But this time, I also left with a renewed sense of urgency. I left truly concerned for the future wellbeing of polar bears across the Arctic. But I also left knowing that I’m not alone in this feeling.

Field Ambassador Larissa Thelin speaks with guests on the Frontiers North Adventures Lodge

Photo: Larissa Thelin / Polar Bears International

Larissa Thelin speaks with guests on the Frontiers North Adventures Lodge.

Scientists have been shifting from solely data analysis towards communication roles because our data is telling a clear story and we’re concerned enough to feel as though we need to speak up. This year painted a very clear picture of the warming, extreme weather events, displacement, and other catastrophic impacts that we will face with continued climate warming. It was also one of the worst years for Arctic sea ice and thus for polar bears in Churchill. Now is the time for real, tangible mitigation techniques – and anyone can help. Climate change mitigation will require all of us working together. My hope is that everyone spends time learning about how climate change is affecting our world and how they may help.

A resident of British Columbia, Larissa Thelin earned her Master of Science degree studying polar bear and harp seal space use at the University of Alberta with Dr. Andrew Derocher. Her research focuses on understanding how climate change affects vulnerable species and ecosystems. She is currently making plans to go on for a PhD.