11/4/2014 6:41:07 PM

Changes in Churchill over Time

I have been coming north to Churchill, Manitoba for over a decade. The Wapusk National Park area near Churchill has the world's most-studied population of polar bears. Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting their seal prey. Here along Hudson Bay, the bears are onshore for part of the year—the sea ice freezes in November and bears hunt on it until it melts in July, then they come ashore again for the ice-free months.

But the sea ice has been declining due to climate change and global warming, and the bears now have four or five fewer hunting weeks each year. This means they are eating fewer seals, so their body condition is going down. Bears in poor body condition are also not producing as many cubs, so the population is declining.

Here on the shore of Hudson Bay, we can see the bay is not close to freezing. During my first visit here, ten years ago, the bay was already beginning to freeze at this time. The bears were testing the "grease ice" and slushy areas, male polar bears were sparring on cold days, and most of the inland ponds were frozen.

This year, the ponds are slushy, the males aren't wrestling, and the air has been warm. I have not been wearing my arctic jacket when I am outside, and I haven't needed my gloves. It has been cool but not cold, and certainly not cold enough for ice to form on the bay. So I am not optimistic that this famous population of bears will survive over the next few decades. We all need to remain optimistic that other populations of polar bears will survive the warming.

We did our first live chat today. We parked Tundra Buggy One next to a beautiful female polar bear who was resting but restless. As we set up the camera, she scratched in her willow nest, grew increasingly restless, then ambled off. (We know this population of polar bears is pretty well accustomed to Tundra Buggies; it takes more than a buggy to cause them to move. There was a large male upwind and across the tidal pool, so maybe that was the reason she moved.) So polar bear scientist Andrew Derocher and I had a conversation about polar bear-human relations through history, but without a polar bear backdrop.

Polar bears have been cultural icons through the ages, as all bears have been. From early polar cultures who both hunted and revered the polar bear, who left historical carved objects of bears and who created dances based on bear behaviors to modern cultures that put polar bears on soda cans and other places, polar bears have  been important cultural icons. Dr. Derocher even reminded us that a Norwegian king gave the English king a polar bear as early as 1252; the bear was kept in the Tower of London (I guess with ravens!) and apparently was "swum" in the Thames River for exercise, or maybe to fish. Our point in talking about polar bears as cultural icons is that people should care about bears and other animals that are threatened with extinction due to human activities.

Our questions today were really interesting, with many of the usual ones, including whether polar bear populations had increased in the last 50 years (it's complicated, following years of overharvesting, then complete protection for some subpopulations, then intense warming in the Arctic), and whether polar bears should be introduced to Antarctica (um, NO! We have enough invasive species around the world as a result of earlier introductions done with little thought to the consequences).

Despite the relatively warm temperatures, which started going down a little today (hope for ice!), I love being here on the tundra with other scientists. Andrew Derocher with over 30 years studying polar bears. Steven Amstrup with even more time studying polar bears. Megan Owen from San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research (who just published a paper on polar bear scent identification and olfactory characteristics). And Cecilia Bitz, a leading climatologist. The conversations about polar bears, bears in general, and bears in a warming world, are amazing. To be having those conversations on the Tundra Buggies, and be able to share those conversations with people around the world through our chats and webinars, is even more amazing.

Steven Amstrup and I were remembering the first time we did a Tundra Connections webcast about 10 years ago. We had a conversation with kids in Australia on Halloween night. Our "buggy studio" was lit by one incandescent bulb, with aluminum foil backing it. We each had a flashlight for extra light, so in the spirit of Halloween we did some flashlight lighting under our chins (spooky), and then someone held a laptop Apple computer up to our faces so we could have the conversation using that primitive little camera. How far Tundra Buggy One has come since then! We are in a rolling full-media studio with high-tech cameras and outstanding sound and lighting equipment. This is Seriously AMAZING! Hope you all can tune in this week....

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