Polar Bear Blog – Climate, Bears, Whales and Roads

I know that often it seems that the Polar Bear Blog is kind of skeptical about climate change – its not my fault, there is a lot of ice on Hudson Bay this year… – but for the moss-huggers out there, here is a climate change update.

Word on the street is that a black bear was spotted on the ice behind the Town Complex hunting seals.  This sounds a bit Churchill rumourish but black bears have actually been venturing out on the sea ice off the coast of Labrador for a number of years now.  Grizzlies have been recorded far out on the ice in the West Arctic as well – they only eat seal brains and a bit of meat, the fat is too rich for them.   This has resulted in a few Grolar Bear sightings over recent years…  so you never know, some (extremely) lucky black bear might end up finding a female polar bear on of these years resulting in a Blolar Bear.  He would need to have pretty long legs I think.

For the most part, this is a good year for polar bears, especially in the eastern Arctic but really, across much of Canada.  In Svalbard and the Kara Sea, this is a bit of a different story.  Birth rates are very low there this year and the ice seems to be very poor.  Now, this type of event has been recorded before with almost no births/denning and very poor ice cover being recorded in the 1950s (World of the Polar Bear, Perry, 1966).

However, this year’s poor production in the Svalbard Archipelago seem to be a result of 2007’s record low in sea ice coverage.  That year, an arctic ‘tornado’ and warmer temperatures resulted in the breakup of a massive sheet of multi-year ice in the Beaufort Sea.  From what I can gather, this ice sheet would have ‘fed’ ice, via ocean currents, over the north pole to the Svalbard area.   Without that ice to either feed it or possibly slow down the current(?), the ice just seems to be getting washed out of that area.

Just my take… either way, a banner year in the eastern Arctic is resulting in a perfect storm of disaster for Svalbard bears.  Whether its climate change’s effects or a shift in the jet stream, this winter in Svalbard has been really quite warm, a fair bit higher than normal.  So, we’ll see – the bears have bounced back from this type of thing before but three or four years of this could be pretty grim for those guys.

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So, back to Churchill, spring seems pretty normal.  Most birds are back now, there’s still ice on the Bay and the first train derailment of the year has occurred.  Some tourist groups have been cancelled and passenger service is not slated to restart until sometimes next week.  Hate to say it, but the longer Omnitrax owns these tracks and tries to run heavy loads of grain in the spring… the more, the bad old days when the train was always ‘late’, don’t seem so bad.  At least, there was a train.

There was a good debate on Facebook about the need for a road to Churchill and there are valid points on both sides.  I’m actually in favour of a road now, even though I don’t think it happens for another 20-30 years.  Its just so expensive to ship anything in and out and Churchill’s train schedule rep has taken such a battering over the last six years… well, I think tourism would get a real boost from a road.  You would have a real northern lights and birding industry again – VIA just advertised a 50% off sale where regular priced Economy from Winnipeg to Churchill was over $600…!  Crazy.

I do like the feeling of remoteness that Churchill has… but after driving the Dempster Highway so many times now, I can honestly say that a road won’t take that away.  Churchill will still be special.  The difference it will make is allowing small businesses to compete.  A road allows small tour operators to bring in vehicles cheaper, allows tourists to get to Churchill cheaper, etc.  Prices will go down for both gas and goods.  I don’t see any scenario where business will leave town – in fact, more businesses would start up, maybe a fruit and vegetable truck like Inuvik, some food service carts, tire service(!) and locally-owned transport companies, that kind of stuff.  Oh well, moot point anyway – I can’t see a road being built as too many levels of government are invested in keeping Omnitrax profitable.

Speaking of Omnitrax, oil shipments appear to be on hold now, as announced by Merv Tweed.  This is good news – I won’t get into it again, but the potential damage to Hudson Bay is just staggering compared to the overall benefit of small-scale oil shipments.  This was not unexpected, as I have yet to see Omnitrax embark on an initiative without significant support from Canadian tax payers.  That being said, the cynical side of me feels that our new ‘Arctic oil research centre‘ could very well be tied to funding for improved Arctic oil shipping facilities for Omnitrax… time will tell.

Beluga whales are back! The river broke up a coupled days ago and whales have already been spotted.  These first whales (believed to still be heading down to the Nelson) are a bit more skittish but within a week or so, the river should be full of our summer residents.  Since no whales are hunted in Churchill, they are extremely comfortable with boats, kayaks and snorkellers.  Beluga whale tourism has really taken off in the last years, especially snorkelling.  And rightly so, where else in the world can you hop off a plane and be swimming with whales a couple hours later…  Swim with beluga whales at www.churchillwild.com, www.lazybearlodge.com or seanorthtours.com


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