From bowhead whales to sea ice, it's always inspiring to catch up on the latest research and to network with others who live or work in the Arctic.

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

1/9/2017 3:54:44 AM

Northern Focus

By Alysa McCall, Staff Scientist and Director of Conservation Outreach 

Along with other Polar Bears International staff members, I spent the last couple months surrounded by polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, talking about polar bears, sea ice, and a changing climate. PBI leaves Churchill as the season winds down, but that doesn’t mean we stop speaking and thinking about the Arctic!

In early December, Winnipeg was the place to be for those interested in the changing north, especially in and around the Hudson Bay region. I was grateful and excited to attend the Wapusk Research and Monitoring Symposium (Dec. 1-2) and the ArcticNet conference (Dec. 5-9) in the wintery capital city of Manitoba.

During the Wapusk Research and Monitoring Symposium, dozens of people that work in and around Wapusk National Park in Manitoba convened to discuss research in the region. The park is a critical area for polar bears as it protects one of the world’s largest known maternity denning areas, but so much more goes on here!

The greater Hudson Bay ecosystem has three overlapping ecosystems (marine, tundra, and boreal), which makes it an ecologist’s dream to study. I heard from researchers who are studying wood frogs, foxes, permafrost, geese, seals, and more. It was incredible to see the multitude of reasons why conservation is important in this park, especially after seeing all the evidence that climate change is impacting the region at all levels. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on earth, which was maybe even more apparent during the ArcticNet conference.

The annual ArcticNet meeting is the largest gathering of Arctic researchers in Canada. It brings together students and researchers, Inuit and other Northerners, and policy makers and stakeholders to talk about environmental, social, economical, and political challenges and opportunities that are emerging from climate change and modernization in the Arctic. The wide variety of posters, discussions, and presentations were fascinating. Here are just a few highlights:

  • First, I was very interested to hear more about the new Churchill Marine Observatory that will be operated by the University of Manitoba. Setting up on the shores of Hudson Bay, this group will ask multiple important research questions and run different experiments, including one looking at what happens to sea ice during an oil spill. This research will only become more important to the ecosystem as a whole, including polar bears, as shipping in the north increases and the likelihood of a spill rises. We look forward to seeing this observatory open up in the next year or two and following their important work.
  • Another highlight was attending the 2016 Arctic Inspiration Prize ceremony. Several groups won awards this year including SmartICE (Sea-ice Monitoring And Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments), a system that incorporates both Inuit Traditional Knowledge and state-of-the-art technology to monitor and share information about sea ice. This program will help inform peoples’ decisions about travel and shipping, as well as improve safety for those that use sea ice on a regular basis. Many people who live in the Arctic depend on sea ice for their livelihoods. It is important that, as sea ice continues to change, they have ways to stay safe and up-to-date on conditions, while also being able to contribute their own knowledge.  
  • One more standout was hearing Melissa Galicia talk about her study showing that, in northern Hudson Bay, polar bears may be scavenging on bowhead whales carcasses from killer whale predations. Melissa, who is working on her PhD out of York University, spoke about the study on the same day it came out in the press. Her work suggests that as sea ice decreases, killer whales are able to make their way into Hudson Bay more often, where they prey on more bowhead whales. However, killer whales selectively eat certain parts of bowhead whales, leaving food for polar bears to scavenge on. This scavenging may have a short-term benefit for polar bears, but even this benefit will be lost as sea ice continues to decline and bowheads move out of the area. Such large-scale ecosystem shifts are hard to predict but interesting to document. We know that sea ice is a critical habitat for many animals, therefore as it changes, so will the patterns and lives of the many creatures that rely on it.

Altogether it was a wonderful 10 days in Winnipeg of networking, listening, and learning. Polar Bears International is inspired by all those that care about the Arctic, whether they are actively researching the ecology, living there and using its resources daily, or contributing what they can from afar by working on their own community solutions to climate change. If you are interested in supporting polar bear conservation and research please consider a donation or adoption as part of your holiday giving.

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