11/29/2012 9:34:50 PM

Wind, Cape, and Tundra Connections

Unrelenting winds blasted the Tundra Buggy® Lodge throughout the night. When dawn broke we found our camp surrounded by icy ramparts, steep snow drift tops smoking with wind driven snow. The fancy lacework of snowflakes, sheared away by pounding winds, fine as talcum, settled on everything. When aloft, these icy motes, called diamond dust in Alaska where I come from, sparkle and glint in the sun. But no sun was to be found this chilly Wednesday morning, snow falling rapidly in the driving wind. While waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can resume hunting ringed seals, polar bears gather at Cape Churchill, mill about and socialize with one another. But on days like these, little moves. From the warmth of our tundra buggy, we can see white tongues of vapor rising from open waters. Like a lens shutter constricting, sea ice forms first around the shore then grows seaward until the bay is enshrouded. But why do bears yet remain on land when kilometers of ice rim the bay? And how do they know when the ice is huntable when they are not out on it? I have no good explanations but am confident that what bears do is not random and is in their long term best interest.

Tundra Buggy One (TB1), driven by BJ Kirschhoffer of Polar Bears International, headed out into the blizzard around 9 a.m. in search of bears with myself, Dr. Martyn Obbard, JoAnne Simerson, CJ Carter, and Cynthia Smith aboard. Peering through the snow-encrusted windows we searched for bears but saw nothing. We soon approached a 50-foot steel tower erected decades ago for polar bear observation by Dr. Ian Stirling, renowned Canadian polar bear scientist. Near the tower's base two rusty cages sat with doors ajar. Many years ago, stout steel bars protected photographers within from curious bears while providing unprecedented ground-level views of these majestic bears. Continuing along the gravel shore, we were surprised to see an Eider paddling in an emerald pool of seawater. Just beyond, we found two large male polar bears sprawled out on a willow-rimmed knoll, black eyes blinking in response to the ice-driven winds.

Setting the air brake, BJ parked TB1. We readied for an upcoming Tundra Connections Webcast focused on polar bear moms and cubs. Moderating the session, JoAnne Simerson of the San Diego Zoo, introduced the audience to our unique setting, the mission of PBI, and today's topic. Dr. Martyn Obbard and I fielded a number of questions from online viewers, occasionally assisted by JoAnne with her extensive experience with polar bears in the zoo environment. Tundra Connections Webcasts help people understand not only the biology of polar bears but also their plight, fueled by rapid climate change.

The sun sets early here, just a bit past 4 PM, darkness following quickly. So after the webcast we motored back to the Lodge as skies dimmed. Once docked, we braced for the blast of sub-zero wind as we made our way into the warmth of the Tundra Buggy Lodge. I'm sure I speak for all involved in these webcasts that it has been a great privilege to represent PBI and Frontiers North Adventures in doing these conservation presentations.

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