Wind, Snow, and Polar Bears
Megan is reporting from Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Returning to the Polar Bears.
There are beautiful, calm, sunny days up here where you start to believe that you might begin to master the art of living in the polar bear’s Arctic home. But then, out of nowhere, the weather moves in. Of course the weather up here has any number of combinations of cold, rain, snow, and wind. And what really keeps you on your toes is that it can turn on a dime, leaving you feeling hopelessly ill-equipped to stand outside, even for a few minutes.
After we left our base camp at the Tundra Buggy Lodge® this morning, we quickly realized that the blue sky of the previous day was not going to be peeking out from behind the thick clouds overhead this morning. How would this weather impact the polar bears in the area? Would mothers and cubs still be out and about? Or would they be hunkering down in the willow shrubs, staying warm and conserving energy?
As we slowly drive along, the wet falling snow that we see outside isn’t really falling: it is passing by our buggy window at a perfectly horizontal trajectory. It is blowing up here! Winds are gusting up to 35 miles per hour and that makes the 30-degree-Fahrenheit (11.1 degrees Celsius) weather feel a heck of a lot colder! Stepping outside to see the bears takes a touch more coaxing in this wind, but seeing their beautiful faces, completely unperturbed by weather, brings us right on out. We have been watching a pair of bears for a few days now. We are not exactly sure “who” they are: our best guess is a pair of 3-year-old male brothers that haven’t yet moved on to their solitary adult lives. But we don’t know for sure. Most bears that you see this time of year out here are hunkering down in the willows, conserving their energy and moving slowly, if at all, from here to there. These two, however, have been sparring for the last few days, pretty much nonstop. They appear to think that they have energy to spare!
Watching these two bears sparring like a pair of well-fed Sumo wrestlers, it is easy to think that all is well for the polar bear. But these two young bears have very little experience, and they are certainly not of reproductive age. Polar bear reproduction requires energy—stored energy, and lots of it.
It is reassuring to see the snow begin to blanket the tundra. Not only does it look beautiful, but it also leaves us optimistic that the Hudson Bay will begin its annual freeze, sooner than later. Once the Bay freezes, the bears that are congregating here will all head out onto the sea ice in search of their first meal in months. Climate change has pushed the sea ice melt in the summer earlier and earlier, which effectively shortens the hunting season for polar bears and extends the length of their summer fast. This shortening of the hunting season is really hard on the bears and can threaten the ability of some female bears to reproduce successfully.
So, although it is nice to be outside on a calm, temperate day here, it feels even better to have the fall weather move in, hopefully bringing with it winds from the north and cooler temperatures. The sea ice is the polar bear’s home, and we know that they are anxious and ready to get back out there.
Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.