Field Report: Polar Bears Are The New Canaries


In November, One World One Ocean traveled to Churchill, Canada—the “polar bear capital of the world”—to highlight the issues facing Arctic ecosystems and the need to proactively manage the region’s summer sea ice since it is expected to last the longest as global temperatures rise. The trip was organized by Coca-Cola and World Wildlife Fund, which together recently launched the “Arctic Home” campaign. This campaign will raise awareness and funds to support WWF’s global polar bear conservation efforts with a focus on a new project they are calling “The Last Ice Area.” WWF is working with local indigenous people and governments to create a management plan for an area in Canada and Greenland, approximately 500,000 square miles, that will provide a natural “safety net” of ice for polar bear habitat. One World One Ocean supports the campaign and seeks to raise awareness about the challenges facing this most extraordinary marine mammal. One World One Ocean’s first film presentation, To The Arctic 3D from Warner Bros. Pictures, MacGillivray Freeman Films and IMAX Corporation, will premiere in IMAX® theatres in Spring 2012.

Our group gets up close with a Churchill resident.



Geoff York sits in a tundra buggy, an angular vehicle on giant tractor wheels that looks like the NASA version of a lunar-roving school bus. At the edge of Hudson Bay, outside the spartan town of Churchill, Canada, population 923, it’s sunny and ten degrees warmer than usual for this time of year. The tundra buggy doesn’t bounce along on frozen hard pack like you would expect, but slushes through standing water and soggy snow. A short distance away, two full-grown male polar bears wait on piles of kelp, curled up like giant white cats, napping at water’s edge.

There should be ice here.

Tundra buggies weren’t designed as aquatic vehicles.


York is hosting a “seeing is believing” trip. As a veteran polar bear researcher, and Polar Bear Conservation Lead for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), he brings partners here to see polar bears in the wild, hoping the experience will move them to help protect these animals. His reward is watching the light bulb go on.

“It truly is a transformative experience watching people see them for the first time.  The polar bear comes up to the buggy and looks you in the eyes, or if you are lucky, you see a mom with a cub. Watching them interact with one another, people are truly taken with these animals in a way that makes them want to get involved,” said York.

Killing time on a pile of kelp.
 
From left, Shaun MacGillivray, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, polar bear specialist Geoff York, and WWF CEO Carter Roberts taking in the sights.   Katie MacGillivray and Patty Collins enjoy sunset in Churchill.
 
 
Curious people.   Curious bear.

In his buggy are Shaun MacGillivray, Producer and Managing Director of One World One Ocean; Patty Collins, Senior Director of Development for MacGillivray Freeman Films; Carter Roberts, President of World Wildlife Fund; and Jordan Banks, President of Facebook Canada. Joining are Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, as well as Bea Perez, Coke’s Chief Sustainability Officer, fresh from the launch of their Arctic Home campaign. 

 

Churchill, a remote outpost on the West edge of Hudson Bay only reachable by plane or 3-day train ride, has become a focal point for the interface between climate, wildlife and humans. Its moniker “the polar bear capital of the world,” comes not from their growing numbers but an increasing threat to their existence: global warming. A thawing Arctic is like an ecological coal mine, and polar bears are the new canaries.

Aerial Scenic

Sea ice is critically important to the species, providing the platform on which they live, breed and hunt ringed seals. Unlike other bears, they’re considered marine mammals as they derive their food from the sea and spend most of their lives out on the floes. Some never touch land, though they are getting fewer. Sea ice gathers around Churchill due to northwest winds and a counter clockwise current in Hudson Bay. The Churchill River meets the bay near town, and since freshwater freezes faster than saltwater, ice grows outward from shore here to meet the sea ice coming down from the north. As the first place ice forms in winter, and the last place it disappears in the spring, bears end up spending summers here.
“It’s basically where the train drops them off,” says York.

Now, four weeks later than the historical time for ice formation, the sea is still unfrozen.

Big Polar Bear

Patty Collins in the Arctic

“That’s significant for the bears to have to wait four weeks longer, especially if they are having to come off the ice two to three weeks earlier in the summer time,” said York.

Dr. Ian Stirling with the Canadian Wildlife Service agrees: “For a polar bear not all weeks are equal, because they are losing three of the best weeks for feeding on the ice, when the seal pups are the most abundant, and they can put on the fat that they store and live on for four months onshore.”

“The fattest bear wins,” said Collins, who remarked at how many bears were encountered just a short distance from the lodge.

Adult male polar bears can lose half their weight during summer months and Hudson Bay bears weigh on average 15% less than they did 30 years ago. Stirling said there is a “direct relationship between the date of the ice break-up and survival.”

Warmer weather also means some snow days will now be rainy. Rain can cave in a female polar bear’s maternity den in the snow, and the maternity dens of ringed seals they depend on for food. Less seals mean less bears.

The decline isn’t unique to Churchill. In Alaska, there have been four drownings, something unprecedented for polar bears, as the distance to summer offshore ice has grown from the usual 10 to 60 miles to more than 200 miles in recent years. The U.S. Geological Survey forecasts that two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear by 2050, surviving only in pockets like Wrangel Island, Svalbard and parts of Canada and northern Greenland.  

Polar bears come to the Churchill region due to the seasonal patterns of ice melt and freeze. However, each year, some of these bears, either from curiosity or driven by hunger, are drawn to the town of Churchill and find themselves in harm’s way.  Conservation Manitoba, a wildlife management agency, has established a bear alert program in Churchill, and many residents leave house and car doors unlocked in case a neighbor needs to duck in and dodge a wayward bear. Bears not easily escorted from town are kept in a holding facility—“polar bear jail”—but with longer wait times for the sea ice to form, the bears that are released have time to wander back to town.  As a result, some bears are now sedated and helicoptered out of the area for release.

Polar Bear Holding FacilityPatty Collins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Relocating a bear that wandered into town, to the wilderness.

Inside Chopper
Polar Bear on Ground

Researchers releasing the sedated bear. In a few minutes it will gradually wake up and wander off.

 

While in Churchill, the One World One Ocean team accompanied naturalists from Conservation Manitoba as they helicoptered a male polar bear out for release. In order to keep human contact to an absolute minimum, MacGillivray, Collins, and the others kept their distance once on the ground. Although sedated, the bear’s consciousness could return anytime.

Patty Collins and Shaun MacGillivray

“To see these bears in the wild, no less be on the ground with one, and realize how magnificent they are was the most powerful experience of the trip,” said Collins.

 

Adds MacGillivray, “The urgent need for action to protect all members of Arctic ecosystems, not just polar bears, is well known, but nothing makes it more clear, or more real, than being there, and having one of these incredible animals look straight at you.”

On the last day of the trip, a large, young female bear approached the tundra buggy. Curious, she got up close, stood on hind legs, folded her arms, and looked the group over. Inside the heated metal box were captains of industry, filmmakers, and dedicated conservationists, all snapping away with their cameras, all bent on getting the word out that people need to see what is going on here, that we need to bring the ice back. York saw his light bulbs.

The female saw a bunch of odd little bears in coats. After a spell she dropped down to all fours and headed off toward a stand of yearling pines, hunkered down, and waited for the bay to freeze.

 

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