Northern lights above an inukshuk near Churchill

The town of Churchill is famous for its fall gathering of polar bears, but in winter it's known for its northern lights, providing another opportunity to share Arctic inspiration and conservation messaging.

© Madison Stevens/Polar Bears International

3/24/2020 6:51:42 PM

Northern Lights Season

By Emma Acorn, Churchill Programs Manager

It was a cold first northern lights season for Polar Bears International House in Churchill, Manitoba, with temperatures well below zero—not surprising for the polar bear capital of the world.

PBI House, our new interpretive center, first opened its doors last fall for polar bear season. During that time, we welcomed over 2,000 visitors, who came to learn more about the bears and their relationship with the sea ice. We closed in late November, after the sea ice returned to the shores of Hudson Bay, because once that happens, the bears are outta here to hunt seals!  

After the bears head for the sea ice, people start to disappear too, including tour groups, photographers, seasonal staff, and many locals who need a break after working a busy season.

Winter's calm

Northern lights season, which runs from late January through March, is a quieter time in Churchill than the fall. I wondered if visitors would want to come talk about polar bears when they are not seeing them on their tour? Would they have any interest in discussing climate change after freezing outside the night before, watching the northern lights and enjoying their frosty eyelashes? Was this going to be a tough crowd? Every day would be an experiment.

Before we opened our doors for northern lights season, we hosted an important event in our main interpretive space. On January 15th, 2020, the first meeting of the Churchill Polar Bear Safe Working Group, founded by the Mayor and Council of Churchill, was held at PBI House. Those assembled represented a wide cross-section of stakeholders, including representatives of PBI. Together, we shared our concerns for the polar bears and people of Western Hudson Bay and our hopes to collaborate further on potential solutions.

We began welcoming the public at large on January 25th. In the beginning it was quiet, with just a few curious train travelers and locals stopping by. My first chance to deliver our northern lights season tour was to a lovely couple from Ontario. I shared what the bears were up to. It isn’t hard to show enthusiasm when talking about how amazing mother polar bears are and how crazy adorable the cubs are when they first emerge from their dens in late February or March.

Having a seven-minute PBI video like Ursula to back me up made my job a lot easier. It is the most beautiful tribute to polar bears, especially the moms, and just one of the many reasons I am so proud to work with this team of passionate conservationists.

Young ambassadors

I was glad that I’d had a few days to practice before the teenagers showed up to test me! But these turned out to be the best teenagers you could ever find, the kind that fill you up with hope and determination: 20 students from across Manitoba who traveled to Churchill with their teachers as part of a summit focused on climate change and climate solutions, along with training on how to inspire others through storytelling and social media campaigns. We worked collaboratively on the summit with Assiniboine Park Zoo and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, thanks to funding provided by Environment Climate Change Canada.

Keep an eye out for the group’s hashtag, #ourclimatejourney, across social media. These kids are ready to work--and, just so you know, Snapchat is dead and TikTok rules, according to sixteen-year-olds. Well, you do tend to learn something new when every day is an experiment!

Manitoba students gather in Polar Bears International House

Emma Acorn engages with Manitoba youth at PBI's interpretive center in Churchill. Although the winter season is quieter than bear season, it also provides opportunities for deeper engagement. Photo copyright Assiniboine Park Zoo.

So, what was going to surprise me next? A family of four from Miami traveled all the way to Churchill in February to see the lights with their own eyes after following the Northern Lights Cam on for years. While PBI’s focus is on polar bears, we also work to inspire people to fall in love with the Arctic--and our Northern Lights Cam is part of that outreach. (To learn more about the science behind the northern lights be sure to check out the Churchill Northern Science Centre’s website.) This family was so energetic and excited! I introduced them to the Ursula video and then did my best to answer their many questions and keep up as we discussed being from such different places but still being affected by climate change, as are the polar bears.

We also stayed involved with the Churchill community, hosting a free charcoal-drawing workshop led by Sandra Cooke of the Churchill Creative Collective in celebration of International Polar Bear Day. The group of locals laughed and talked about polar bears, northern lights, and we all tried our best to put our feelings of hope and inspiration on paper.

Arctic inspiration

Then the tour groups started arriving in larger numbers and the rest of the season flew by. One interesting thing I discovered in my daily experiments is that when you have an extremely energy-efficient building and then bake cookies to serve with hot chocolate on days with extreme cold warnings, people start fanning themselves by the end of the tour. Good job on the building’s heat-retaining capacity, architects! Results noted and operations adjusted.

After the tour groups started to book and things got busier, I realized quickly my earlier concerns about folks not wanting to talk about climate change or polar bears were just not being supported in this daily experiment. I am starting to think polar bears inspire people to open a conversation many folks want to have but are not sure where to start. Our interpretive center makes talking about this easier, as it shows how polar bears depend on sea ice for their survival. Once that is established everyone wants to know how they can help. That is how we end the regular tour, talking about solutions and how each of us can play a role in tackling this daunting task.

While the numbers of visitors may not have been as high for northern lights season (350 for outreach and 50 more using meeting space) these interactions all had meaning for the bears and for the people. Even without the thrill of seeing the bears in the wild on the tundra, visitors asked how to donate and whether they could find Ursula on YouTube to share with their friends and family. This reinforces the knowledge I learned growing up on a big family farm in the country with regular farm hardships and challenges. People care. People care for each other, for animals, and if they feel they can help, they will. Just help them find out how they can.

Oh, and one other thing I learned through this experiment: If you have a big blue house in Churchill with the Polar Bears International logo on the front, get ready to receive a bag of frozen polar bear poop from a snowmobiler looking to support scientists (and, yes, the scientists were glad to receive it!). Folks just want to help!  

PBI House is closed now in response to the coronavirus, but will reopen for beluga season this summer. In the meantime, PBI's educational outreach continues through online channels, including our Education Center, YouTube channel, and social media outlets.

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