Bears

November 08, 2021

I ran across a story in my NY Times news feed concerning the immediate impact of climate change in Canada.  Churchill, Manitoba, prides itself as the Polar Bear Capital of the World.  The problem is the polar bears are in decline.  One impact of global warming is the bears are spending more time around Churchill as the sea ice forms later in the year and melts earlier.  Polar bears lose about 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of their weight each day they spend on land.  As the ice season shrinks, the bears face fewer days of hunting and more days fasting.  Between 1980 and 2019, the weight of the average pregnant polar bear in the Churchill region declined by 15 percent and new births are in decline, according to Nick Lunn, a Canadian government scientist.  The number of polar bears in western Hudson Bay fell by 30 percent from 1987 to 2016.  Some experts believe the bears are already in terminal decline.

When I looked online, I found the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a hypercarnivorous (diet more than 70% meat) bear whose native range lies largely above the Arctic Circle, encompassing the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding land masses.  It is the largest extant bear species and largest extant land carnivore.  A boar (adult male) weighs around 350–700 kg (770–1,540 lbs.), while a sow (adult female) is about half that size.  The polar bear is a sister species of the brown bear but has evolved to occupy a narrower niche.  This evolution includes body characteristics adapted for cold temperatures, for moving across snow, ice, and open water, and for hunting seals, which make up most of its diet.  Although polar bears are born on land, they spend most of their time on the sea ice, and their scientific name means “maritime bear”.  Polar bears hunt their preferred seals from the edge of sea ice and live off fat reserves when no ice is present.  Because they depend on sea ice, polar bears are classified as marine mammals. 

The expected loss of habitat caused by climate change results in the polar bear being classified as a vulnerable species.  The polar bear has been a key figure in the material, spiritual, and cultural life of circumpolar peoples for thousands of years and remain culturally important.  Historically, the polar bear has also been known as the “white bear” and is sometimes referred to as the “nanook”, based on the Inuit term nanuq.  Nanook became the fictional name of the Inuit hunter in the 1922 silent film, Nanook of the North.  This film which combines elements of documentary and docudrama, in the tradition later called salvage ethnography.  The film follows the struggles of the Inuk man and his family in the Arctic, and is written, directed, filmed, and produced by Robert J. Flaherty.  Some criticized Flaherty for staging sequences, but the film is generally viewed as standing “alone in its stark regard for the courage and ingenuity of its heroes.”  It was the first feature-length documentary to achieve commercial success, proving the financial viability of the genre and inspiring many films to come.

Thoughts:  In Churchill, climate change is not a looming danger, it is daily life.  It is also the fear that Americans will not come visit to see the bears.  While climate change is destroying the old way of life, many in town are focused on the opportunities global warming and the opening of the sea ice could bring to this small town.  The polar bear is in trouble, yet the people dream of the possibility of building a maritime city.  As the ice melts the future could be as an outlet for the grain grown on Canada’s western plains and the minerals that will be mined from its thawing northern expanses, representing an economic boom for Churchill.  Not so much for the polar bears.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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