Changing habitat use and dynamics for the polar bears (Ursus maritimus) of Davis Strait
Habitat selection theory tells us that animals do not move aimlessly through their environment. Rather, they choose to exist in specific spaces based on their understanding of their surroundings. This theory is the basis behind my current Master of Science thesis.
Photographs by Andrew Derocher | Please note that the bears in these photos are from the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation. Field work in Davis Strait was not necessary for this study.
The goal of this study is to understand how climate change might affect the suitable habitat of one of the most under-researched subpopulations of polar bears (Davis Strait). We first assessed historical trends in sea ice dynamics within Davis Strait to better understand the environment that these bears live within. We then examined seasonal habitat selection for both Davis Strait polar bears and Northwest Atlantic harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus), one of the primary prey species for this subpopulation of polar bears. This tells us what aspects of their environment both species select for ideal habitat. We are currently analyzing the overlap in their selected habitat, which will essentially illustrate the prime hunting habitat for Davis Strait polar bears. Next, we will project this overlapping habitat forward using sea ice modelling projections that tell us what Arctic sea ice may look like in the future based on various climate change emissions scenarios. This will allow us to understand how the prime hunting habitat for Davis Strait polar bears may be expected to change or shift over time. This study has been conducted entirely in QGIS and R.
I am currently working under the supervision of Dr. Andrew Derocher in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta. This project is a collaboration between the University of Alberta, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Government of Nunavut, and the Nunavut Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit. We would like to thank our many funders (listed alphabetically): Canadian Council on Ecological Areas, Earth Rangers, ECCC, Hauser Bears, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Polar Bears International, Quark Expeditions, Scholarship Partners Canada, The Ocean Foundation, University of Alberta, Weston Family Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund Canada. We also wish to acknowledge the two traditional territories that this project operates within: the University of Alberta lies within Treaty 6 and the territories of First Nations and Métis peoples and Davis Strait is within the territories of Innu, Inuit, Greenlanders, and the Kalaallit Nunaat. We are grateful for the opportunity to live and study within these unceded territories.
The potential effects of climate change on the habitat range of the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis)
Photographs by Trevor Dickinson
Research shows that a rise in surface temperatures will cause many animal species to follow their shifting ranges either upwards in elevation or polewards. Canada’s most endangered mammal, the Vancouver Island marmot, is found in only a few fragmented locations at higher elevations on the island. A shift in their habitat is therefore impossible, as they cannot move infinitely upwards on a mountaintop or move northwards off the tip of Vancouver Island. For a species that is not found anywhere else on the planet, climate change could be detrimental to their well-being.
The goal of this study was to understand how climate change might change or shift the ideal habitat of the Vancouver Island marmot (VIM). Using ArcGIS, we modeled both its current and future ideal habitat. We were specifically interested in VIM winter habitat, as marmots are obligate hibernators (they involuntarily hibernate each winter), and we were given access to known hibernacula locations (burrows that marmots overwinter, or hibernate, in) from the Marmot Recovery Foundation. Using the hibernacula locations and literature-derived habitat requirements (elevation, slope, snow depth, and biogeoclimatic zone) we first determined the current ideal winter habitat for the VIM. We then projected this forward using modelled future snow depth and biogeoclimatic zone data from the University of British Columbia’s ClimateBC. The future potential habitat was modelled using worst-case emissions scenarios in 2080, as we were interested in understanding the full extent of potential habitat change or shift should climate change not be mitigated in the future.
Our results outline a clear trend in marmot habitat—the impacts of climate change will substantially reduce the amount of their potential habitat. The current ideal habitat was calculated to make up approximately 3,200 km2, or 9.6% of Vancouver Island. Our modeled future potential habitat shrinks to just 85 km2, or 0.2% of Vancouver Island by 2080 (see maps below). This suggests a potential 97% reduction in habitat by 2080 based on a worst-case emissions scenario.
This study was completed during my undergraduate degree at Vancouver Island University (Nanaimo, BC Canada) under the supervision of Dr. Jeff Lewis. It was published in the Canadian Geographer in 2018 and cited in the 2020 federal Recovery Strategy for the Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) in British Columbia. We wish to thank Cheyney Jackson (Marmot Recovery Foundation) for access to the hibernacula data, as well as her and Liz Gillis (Vancouver Island University) for their helpful comments on the manuscript. We also wish to thank Vancouver Island University for funding to present this research to the Western Division of the Canadian Association of Geographers Conference in 2016. Finally, we are humbled to have had the opportunity to live, study, and research on Vancouver Island, within the unceded territories of Coast Salish, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, throughout the development of this project.
Coastal Forest Plant Phenology Research & Monitoring Project
The US National Phenology Network defines phenology “as nature’s calendar—when cherry trees bloom, when a robin builds its nest and when leaves turn color in the fall.” Plant phenology, like bud break or fruit ripening, is directly influenced by local climate, and is therefore sensitive to changes in it.
While working for the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute (MABRRI, Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo BC), I had the pleasure of working on the Coastal Forest Plant Phenology Research and Monitoring Pilot. The goal of this study is to investigate the potential influence of changes in the microclimate of Vancouver Island on shifting coastal plant phenology. In other words, the project partners are interested in understanding if changes in local climate on Vancouver Island, brought on by climate change, is causing the phenology of coastal plants to shift.
Photographs by Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute
My primary role in this project was to train undergraduate students on data collection and analysis, including overseeing the development of an extensive report outlining our data collection techniques (see report here). Phenology data is collected both in-person, thanks to assistance from Vancouver Island University students and local community volunteers, and using field cameras. To garner public interest in volunteering for this project, I also presented to local environmental non-governmental groups and helped to lead community training programs in collaboration with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (MoFLNRORD). If you live in central Vancouver Island and are interested in volunteering for this opportunity, visit MABRRI’s website here. This project is a collaboration between Vancouver Island University, MoFLNRORD, Milner Gardens & Woodland, and MABRRI. It is conducted within the traditional lands of many different Coast Salish peoples. We are grateful to be able to research within these unceded territories.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals & Vancouver Island University
Photographs by Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute | Logo from United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
In 2015, the member states of the United Nations collectively signed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda lists the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which outline strategies to “improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.” The SDGs include goals such as “Zero Hunger”, “Sustainable Cities and Communities”, and “Climate Action” and include steps for how nations can achieve them. For the SDGs to be successful, however, they must be implemented at all levels and Vancouver Island University (VIU) aims to do its part in helping to achieve sustainability at a local scale.
In 2018, VIU funded the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region Research Institute (MABRRI) to assess how the university is currently meeting the 17 SDGs. Through my role as MABRRI’s Assistant Research & Community Engagement Coordinator, I led the initial development of this project. With the help of undergraduate Research Assistants, we developed a series of questionnaires aimed at determining how each department was addressing the SDGs through courses, research, services, and daily operations. We then hosted over 80 interviews with faculty and staff on campus, as well as a symposium aimed at garnering feedback from the general university community, including students. This event was attended by VIU’s former President Dr. Ralph Nilson and over 65 university community members. We also developed a report illustrating the results of this study and outlining a 5-year plan for how VIU can continue to meet the SDGs in the future. An updated version of this report can be viewed here.
This project has since expanded beyond the university to include SDG engagement with communities surrounding VIU and the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region. If you are interested in learning more, visit MABRRI’s website here. The VIU community acknowledges and thanks the Snuneymuxw, Quw’utsun, Snaw-naw-as, and Tla’amin, on whose traditional lands we teach, learn, research, live, and share knowledge.
Native-Land.ca was used to determine the locations of the First Nation territories that are listed on this page. Please feel welcome to email me to correct any discrepancies you may find: Thelin@UAlberta.ca
I acknowledge that land acknowledgements are the absolute minimum requirement for white colonizer researchers to begin working towards decolonizing research. While I haven’t had the opportunity to work closely with Indigenous communities through my research in the past, I hope to develop these relationships as I move through my career. Please visit my Resources page to learn more about decolonizing research.