Churchill has four seasons that all seemingly blend into one. There are distinctions between the seasons, mostly temperature to a certain “degree” (see what I did there), as well as different wildlife viewing opportunities. Fantastic northern lights are more visible during the heart of winter though can be seen in fall and even summer with the right conditions. Beluga whales and certain migratory birds prevail only in summer although this past ‘fall’ the whales opted to stick around for awhile during the onset of polar bear season.
With all these amazing sights in Churchill there has been more overlapping of viewing possibilities over the past decade. Polar bears are arriving on land earlier and in greater numbers throughout the summer, a likely repercussion of global warming. This year in particular polar behavior has changed and we are seeing more scavenging in the form of seal – kills and other foraging on the tundra. Adaptation right before our eyes?
Whales, bears, birds, northern lights or beautiful tundra can be seen throughout the year in Churchill. Come see what this amazing region of the sub – Arctic can tantalize you with in any season!
Permafrost contains tons of carbon. Ed Bouvier photo.
Northern lights with Churchill in the background. Katie de Meulles photo.
Churchill sled dog. Brad Josephs photo.
Beluga up close and personal with snorkelers in the Churchill River. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Polar bear curious of camera on polar rover. Natural Habitat photo.
Polar bear in the fireweed in Churchill. Dennis Fast photo.
Our northern ecosystems are changing and this time sea ice is not the suspect. International scientists headed up by the University of Edinburgh have results from a comprehensive study on vegetation comprising the Arctic tundra. Research was conducted on 37 sites in nine countries, monitoring shrub growth in the Arctic spanning 60 years. Curiously plant growth is not a good thing.
Arctic shrubs moving further north. Boundless.com photo.
Arctic shrubs, in most cases willows, are growing and moving north at fairly rapid rates. These tundra shrubs act as a barometer of the Arctic and their increased presence is “strong evidence” that climate change is happening. Focus on diminishing sea ice has been the headline for years and this is just auxiliary evidence that global warming is real.
The growth and spreading of these shrubs in itself is not the problem. What occurs and perpetuates increases in temperatures is the way these thicker stands of plant life fuel warming. Taller, thicker growth of shrubs prevents snow from reflecting sun back away from our planet, therefore warming the Earth’s surface. This process leads to soil temperature increase and thawing of permafrost.
Increased shrub stands change nutrient cycling and carbon levels in the soil and thus affect the decomposition rate and then the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from thawing permafrost. Dr. Isla Myers-Smith was the study co-ordinator for this project and she cautioned on the increased shrub growth; “Arctic shrub growth in the tundra is one of the most significant examples on Earth of the effect that climate change is having on ecosystems.” ( Reported by Press Association July 6, 2015)
The research is documented comprehensively in Nature Climate Change and funded by the International Arctic Science Committee.
Seals, particularly ringed and bearded seals, don’t care too much about the polar bear’s plight of reduced sea ice. True, seals need the ice – pack and ice – floes to build their dens to birth and raise their young. However, they would not mind one bit if there were no polar bears around to stalk them in their blowholes and crash through their dens on the ice in order to devour their young and occasionally adults as well. No, as far as seals think, polar bears could disappear all-together and they wouldn’t have to keep one eye open constantly while they are dozing on the ice in between dives below the surface.
What seals don’t know is they also need to worry about global warming and reduced sea ice in the Hudson Bay and other far northern Arctic regions. Without the ice surface there would be nowhere to build their dens and rear their young near accessible food sources in the ocean. Well, who knows, maybe they do know this and we’re not giving them enough credit. Anyway, the end result is, without sea ice, polar bears cannot hunt their staple prey of seals and seals cannot rear their young pups that are eaten by polar bears. The complex web of life.
Polar bear with a seal kill. Rinie Van Meurs photo.
Polar bears also take adult seals by getting the scent from a distant blowhole utilized by seals to surface periodically. Seals form these access holes in the fall when the ice is softer and less thick. They maintain them throughout the colder months by constantly surfacing and descending in order to prevent ice layers from forming in the hole. Polar bears get very low as they approach the hole and sometimes even dive in to snatch the seal with their sharp, agile claws. When a bear emerges with the kill, they will often share with other polar bears that approach very timidly while nudging the hunter with their noses asking in a way to partake in the meal.
Polar bears gather to feed on a beached whale carcass. Daniel Cox/Natural Exposures photo.
Polar bears are opportunists. In essence they have the ability to find alternative food sources when needed if seals are unavailable. In recent years polar bears have been observed seemingly more active on land or in shallow coastal water hunting seals and beluga or other whales. Scientists wonder if this is a reaction to the shorter sea – ice season. Are polar bears adapting to changing climate conditions?
Only time will tell with regards to the polar bear’s ability to adapt to changing climate and ice conditions resulting from global warming. Seals will have to adapt as well in order to survive and propagate their species. Also, just maybe humans, the wildcard in the equation, can reduce carbon emissions to reverse the trends we are seeing now in the Arctic!
RCMP officers in Resolute Bay, Nunavut report that two Dutch explorers; Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo are missing and presumed drowned. The experienced polar researchers and explorers were on a two-month study of the sea ice conditions in the Arctic for an organization called Cold Facts.
Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo went missing close to Bathurst Island the end of a two-month scientific study of sea ice conditions. Coldfacts.org image.
The pair were exploring and conducting sea ice research when a distress signal was set off near Bathurst Island and a chartered aircraft flew to the signal point. Equipment was spotted on the ice surface but no trace of the men who had been on skis. Subsequent searchers found a dog and sled next to a large hole in the ice and another sled in the water. Other personal expedition items were also in the water.
Throughout their trek, the scientists was regularly updating a website set up for the expedition. Tuesday’s post stated that due to extremely warm temperatures the ice was thin where they were heading.
A final voice recording posted online Tuesday by Cornelissen said: “Today was a good day.” describing the weather as surprisingly warm, “too warm actually,” saying that he ended up skiing in only his underwear and boots.
“We think we see thin ice in front of us, which is quite interesting,” Cornelissen said. “And we’re going to research some more of that if we can.”
The missing researchers disappeared near Bathurst Island, 200 kilometres north of Resolute, Nunavut, itself about 1,500 kilometres north of Iqaluit and nearly 2,000 kilometres north of Churchill, MB. CBC Image.
Due to the global warming, extensive research surrounding Arctic sea ice has been on the rise. The researchers may have fallen victim to the very phenomena and reason for which they had traveled to the Arctic. Global warming has affected reduced sea ice, weather patterns as well as concern for the iconic symbol of the north itself the polar bear!
In honor of Earth Day churchillpolarbears.org is requesting submissions of your favorite polar bear or other Arctic wildlife photos.You can post or share to Churchill Polar Bears Facebook page. In addition we request that you also include a short description of the photo as well as an idea for conserving energy as a means to fight global warming. We will publish them on the site over the coming months and give photographer credit for all images. The challenge is to raise global warming awareness and the affects on polar bears. What a great way to celebrate Earth Day and take a pledge to make this Earth year with stimulating ideas on how to protect the planet!