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‘Avoid changes that are unmanageable, and manage changes that are unavoidable’

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The WWF Arctic Global Polar Bear specialist, Geoff York, is on a field trip in Churchill on the Hudson Bay, observing and blogging about polar bears. Here is the first blog from our ‘eyes and ears on the tundra’.

A virtually ice-free Hudson Bay. (c) WWF / Geoff YorkA virtually ice-free Hudson Bay. (c) WWF / Geoff York

By Geoff York

It’s November 10th in Churchill, Manitoba, and something is not quite right. The air temperature is well above freezing on our arrival and there are only small remnants of a past snow across the mostly bare and brown tundra. There is no ice on Hudson Bay and little sign of any forming far to the north in Foxe Basin. This is disturbing to us, and even more disturbing to the local polar bears.

In the past decade, ice would already have formed along the shoreline by this time of year and a blanket of snow would cover the Churchill area. Twenty years ago the ice would have formed enough to allow most of the bears to depart to the north and well beyond view, signalling the end to the brief tourist season in the main viewing area. This year, the bears are still waiting, and all signs suggest they will remain onshore until early December. But that is only half the story – the Bay ice is also melting up to three weeks earlier now than it did 20 years ago. This impacts polar bears in two ways: it decreases critical hunting time when their preferred prey is abundant and accessible (ringed seals pup in the spring); and it means polar bears in this region will have a longer fast on shore. This is important for all the bears but critical for pregnant females – they will be on shore and fasting for 9 months.

What’s going on here? Science is telling us, with increasing certainty, that carbon dioxide caused by people (largely from the combustion of fossil fuels) is warming our atmosphere and rapidly accelerating a global warming trend. In Churchill, this warming has increased the air temperature by 2 degrees C in the past 30 years, leading to spring ice melting three weeks earlier than it did thirty years ago. This means that polar bears in Churchill have less time to hunt during one of the best periods of year to fatten up on young ringed seals. This in turn leads to bears coming ashore thinner and staying onshore longer where little food of nutritional is readily available. Ultimately these conditions have resulted in a 22% decline in the population here in the past twenty years.

This story of rapid change is unfolding across the Arctic and is challenging both the species and people who call this unique area home. But all is not lost. Humans have caused this problem, and humans can help find the solutions. There is still reason to believe that we can make the changes we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and forestall the worst impacts of climate change – both in the Arctic and in our own backyards.

It comes down to basic risk management. If we want to ensure polar bears roam the Arctic for future generations we must avoid changes to our planet that are unmanageable, and manage the changes that are unavoidable – and we need to start today.

As WWF’s Global Polar Bear lead, I am here on the shores of Hudson Bay to share this special place and information on this magnificent species with visitors and interested people worldwide. Over the next several days I’ll be your eyes and ears on the tundra as I wait with the bears for the return of the sea ice.

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