11/1/2012 5:08:13 PM

Climate Science on the Front Line

As I write this I'm sitting in Tundra Buggy One, watching the ice freeze on the shore of Hudson Bay from a small, but heated space. This is day six of my "vacation" from my job as a government program manager in a program that funds research on climate science. Of course, it's about as far as it could be from any vacation I've ever taken. I'm out on the tundra, working with some of the most remarkable scientists, educators, and explorers I've ever met, doing things I never imagined I'd be doing. But it's a true vacation in the sense that every day is "opposite day," when everything is completely the opposite of my ordinary life.

For starters, in my regular work I've always treated climate science as an intellectual exercise, where research is performed by looking at data from climate models, satellites, networks of weather sensors, all while sitting in front of a computer monitor in an office building built to keep out whatever conditions the local climate can serve up. But this week I'm not looking at the data, instead I'm out in it, seeing for myself how cold it can get on the tundra, sometimes putting on a huge parka for warmth, and looking at the polar bears with their incredibly thick fur.

Another thing that's opposite here is that the tundra buggy is kind of like the zoos at home only inverted. Back home, when I go to the zoo I see the animals in the enclosures, and the people roaming free on the outside. But here the people are on the inside and it's the bears that get to roam free. Sometimes the bears check us out as if we were in a zoo. They come right up to the buggy, get up on their hind legs and sniff around the back deck, poking around the big buggy tires, investigating in one way or another. They seem very human to me -- curious, expressive, intelligent, playful. Of course, this is the view from my safe perch high up on the buggy. Maybe the polar bears are thinking of it as more of an inverted restaurant than an inverted zoo.

A further opposition, and one which I appreciate a lot more now that I'm here, is that we live on land and think of the ocean as a foreign environment, but for the bears it's the opposite. When I see the bears on the tundra I have the distinct impression that they're doing nothing, biding their time while they wait for the ice to come back. Sometimes they look bored, other times they're playing, tussling with each other, wrestling and climbing on each other, other times they're poking around the lodge, finding things to chew on or push on or explore. And when the ice comes back they'll finally be able to go home, back to the sea ice where they live their lives -- mating, hunting, raising cubs, and so on. The bears look like they belong on the ice, not only because of their thick fur, but also the small furry ears (which won't get cold like mine) and the huge paws. Huge paws wouldn't come in handy on land, but they look like they'd be great for dog paddling between the ice floes.

Like climate science, I'm accustomed to thinking of global warming as an intellectual abstraction, basically a set of graphs with temperature going up over time, or sea ice going down. All this is such an accepted part of my professional career over the past 15 years that I've gotten accustomed to it. But for the polar bears it's not an abstraction, it's a question of how much time they can spend on the ice, the chances that they'll make it through the year. Climate science is a very different thing when you experience it on the front line rather than studying it in your office.

As I write this a gyrfalcon has decided to perch on a nearby buggy. Nothing derails your train of thought like an enormous, majestic bird.

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