October 17, 2011

PART 1: The Beginning of an Adventure

I found my time in Churchill at Polar Bear International’s Communicator Leadership Camp so inspiring that I decided to write a journal to document this emotional and amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience.  It will be in the form of a 5 part “mini series”.  Please keep in mind some of this may be sappy/corny, but  I was absolutely moved by this experience.  Some of this if also kind of scientific, and may look like it’s in another language, but I felt it is information to share exactly what I learned from this experience and more importantly, why I was there.  So, if you need a translation, just ask!

Day 1: Sunday, October 9, 2011

After an extremely long travel day, which included being awake for 36 hours, I finally made it to Winnipeg, MB to meet up with others that would be joining me on this adventure!  The group consisted of 9 educators from zoos across North America (Alaska, St Louis, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Tucson, Tacoma, Philadelphia, Toronto and Quebec), 14 extremely enthusiastic teenagers (chosen because they are stewards for the environment and have taken action against climate change in their community), group facilitators and Polar Bears International (PBI) staff members and volunteers.  Since I got in a little early, and was so tired I wasn’t tired anymore, a few of us in my group decided to check out the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.  After a short visit to the zoo, we met all members of our group and discussed the happenings of the week!  With a very full belly, from a very excellent meal with all ingredients from within a 100-mile radius of the hotel, I am off to bed!  4:45am comes early, especially when it still feels like 1:45am Alaska time. 

Communicator group (and me looking like a zombie after going 36 hours without sleep)

Some of you may be wondering why Churchill?  Why are the polar bears in Churchill?  It’s pretty simple, but obviously involves some science.  Churchill is located along the coast of the Hudson Bay, in an area where the freshwater of the Churchill River empties into the salt water of the Bay.   This mixing of fresh and salt water decreases the salinity of the salt water, causing ice to form at a higher temperature. Ice formation begins in the Churchill area of the Hudson Bay and moves north. The ice throughout the Hudson Bay melts completely by the end of July or early August and does not refreeze until approximately November.   This means that all of the polar bears must come ashore for 4 months.  During this period, they are unable to hunt for ringed seals and must fast and survive on fat reserves that they have built up through the winter.  Throughout the fall, and especially just before freeze-up of the Bay, bears migrate towards the coast, congregating until they can move out onto the frozen ice and begin feeding again.

So what’s the big deal?  Why are Polar Bears International and Arctic Ambassador Centers, like the Alaska Zoo, putting in so much effort to protect these bears? Bear with me (hahaha get it?!),  I’m going to get all sciency on you. Two words:  CLIMATE CHANGE!  Polar bears are known to be an indicator species and climate change is having a large effect on their population, specifically through loss of their habitat.  With an increasing global average temperature due to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the sea ice that polar bears depend on for hunting their main prey (ringed seals) is disappearing for longer periods of time.  In the perfect world in Churchill, the seasonal ice would melt and polar bears would come to shore in July, with sea ice freeze-up in October, when the bears would venture back out.  However, due to climate change, sea ice does not freeze up until December now.  This year alone snow is already 3 weeks late in Churchill.  Polar bears are fasting for almost 2 months longer than they used to be and should be.  This loss of habitat and not being able to eat for 5 months has obvious effects on polar bears - small size, lower reproduction rate, etc. So why can’t they just adapt to finding food on land?  Sure they can snack on things like grasses, kelp, birds and small mammals, but there is nothing on land that is of nutritional value to them like the fat of seals.  

I could never imagine a world without this beautiful species.

Find more on my journey to Churchill here:


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