The polar bears of Churchill

In late November of 2021, I was given the opportunity to travel to Churchill Manitoba to volunteer with Polar Bears International (PBI) through their Ambassador Program. I would be working in their interpretive centre (dubbed the “PBI House”), talking to tourists about polar bears, climate change, and my own research. That time of year is known as “Bear Season”, as it’s the best time of year to view polar bears in person. In late fall, polar bears in this area are anxiously awaiting the arrival of sea ice. Since Western Hudson Bay is part of the Seasonal Sea Ice Ecoregion, ice melts away each summer, during which time polar bears in this area are on land and fasting1. So, when the freeze-up period begins, polar bears congregate along the shores of Hudson Bay knowing that near the mouth of the Churchill River is where the sea ice will first start to form.

The 19 subpopulations of polar bears separated into the 4 sea ice ecoregions. Scientists separated the Arctic into these different sea ice ecoregions based on how the sea ice itself operates. Within the Seasonal Ice Ecoregion (where the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears are), sea ice melts away each summer. This map was made by myself in QGIS using the Positron [no labels] basemap from QGIS Quickmap Services and by georeferencing a map of subpopulations from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

This fall, the ice came in late, a phenomenon that is occurring more often as climate change causes the freeze-up period to start later and later1. Unlucky for the bears, they were still on land, hungry for seals after already fasting for almost 150 days. Lucky for me, and the remaining tourists still hoping to catch a glimpse of the bears, I was suddenly needed to help lead tours at the PBI House. The late freeze-up was unexpected, so all the other Ambassadors had flown home. PBI staff reached out to my supervisor asking if anyone was available to help, and I excitedly stepped in. I found out about the trip two days before I was meant to head out.

Hudson Bay may look beautiful in this image, but there is no sea ice in sight. It should have already been forming by mid-November.

My time in Churchill was a dream come true. I was already excited enough to have the opportunity to talk with new people about my passion – the impacts of climate change on vulnerable species’ habitats. But PBI graciously took me out on the tundra and after studying polar bears for over two years, I finally saw them in person.

There is nothing quite like seeing a polar bear in real life. As with other predators, they move through the world knowing they are at the top of the food chain. They walk slowly, with confidence, and will look you right in the eyes if they have a chance. I was entirely overwhelmed that first day seeing them, not just because I was given an opportunity that some people could only dream of, but because I knew that without adequate climate change mitigation techniques being quickly put in place, my generation may be one of the last to see these beautiful creatures in the wild.

A collection of images from my trip to Churchill.

You see, polar bears are not able to gain the necessary calories through land-based (or terrestrial) food sources2. Their metabolism is structured in such a way that they require a high fat content diet – something that only seals, and specifically seal blubber, can give them2. Without sea ice they cannot get access to seals3. And in a warming world, the Arctic sea ice environment – the only place that these bears could ever survive in – is slowly disappearing1.

Luckily for the ice bear, climate change has become increasingly prevalent in the media. Finally, after decades of scientists trying to sound the alarm, our world is starting to take notice on a massive scale. With more and more people speaking out for large-scale emissions reductions, voting with the climate in mind, or educating themselves on this topic (such as through reading blogs like this!), we are becoming more aware of the impacts of climate change and of the urgency to take action. It is only a matter of time before our political leaders step up and work towards lowering our global surface temperature. It is only a matter of time before the Arctic bounces back and the polar bear no longer needs to search for the sea ice that once was.

While in Churchill, I stay and work at the PBI House (top right) in their interpretive centre (left). Sometimes I also get to go out on the tundra in Buggy One, PBI’s research vehicle (bottom right).

You’ve probably noticed superscripts (tiny, elevated numbers) throughout this blog post. These numbers align with the short list of peer-reviewed scientific articles below. By including this list, I’m letting you know where the information within this blog post is coming from. I’m not a polar bear expert – I get my information from those who have completed these studies and their work deserves to be credited.

  1. Stern, H. & Laidre, K. (2016). Sea-ice indicators of polar bear habitat. The Cryosphere, 10, 2027-2041. doi:10.5194/tc-10-2027-2016
  2. Rode, K., et al. (2015). Can polar bears use terrestrial foods to offset lost ice-based hunting opportunities? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 13(3), 138-145. doi:10.1890/140202
  3. Stirling I, Derocher A. (1993). Possible impacts of climate warming on polar bears. Arctic, 46(3), 240-245.
Additional Information
  • See my Resources page to learn more about climate change and how to help
  • Click the links throughout this post for more information (black text links to other webpages)

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