Churchill is a town of roughly 900 people, a shivering outpost on the otherwise vacant tundra south of the Arctic Circle. There are no roads in. Every fall, about 1,000 polar bears lumber around just outside town waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. When it does, they'll cross through Churchill and spend all winter on the ice, gorging on seals.
The town survives on the same feast-and-famine cycle. Ten thousand tourists come to watch the bears while they're marooned here each fall. "Bear season" is the town's biggest source of income. Visitors stay at the Lazy Bear Lodge, they eat at the Hungry Bear Café, and they buy bear mugs, bear key chains, bear sweatshirts, and bear baby bibs. For six weeks, the entire town runs on the rhythms of the tourists.
"Sometimes it's just about taking a quick shot," says one tour guide, "putting the camera down and enjoying the moment. Beautiful, beautiful. Be able to see a bear walk on the ice along there. Beautiful."
A tundra buggy looks like a big white lunchbox on monster truck tires. Packed with tourists, they rumble around the old military trails and tidal flats outside of town. There, bears loaf on tangles of kelp and, once in a while, get up and spar like drunken heavyweights. Sometimes a bear will rear up to lean on a buggy, smearing the hull with muddy paw prints. Mostly, though, they lie around and look bored.
A non-profit called Polar Bears International has been bringing scientists from all over North America to educate school and tour groups. Questions about global warming inevitably come up.
"The bears' males will move onto land when the ice melts in July and, basically, go splat," says Dr. Jane Waterman who is spending the afternoon on a tundra buggy monitoring bear behavior with a group of volunteers. "Remember, these guys are on holiday right now. There's no food, there's no sex, there's nothing. And it's when the sea ice forms that they can get back out there and make a living."
A living for a male polar bear goes like this: stalking across the frozen bay for six months, ambushing seal pups and yanking them through the ice. All they eat is the fat. A large male bear can eat 150 pounds of it on a good day. The bears stay on the ice until the last of it melts on the part of Hudson Bay south of Churchill. There, they decamp. They spend all summer living off reserves in what's called "waking hibernation," waiting for freeze up. But, in fall, when the ice begins to form again, it forms first on the opposite side of Churchill, so the town is in their way.
"Most of them go through town because it's their major migration zone," says Waterman, "and they've been doing that for thousands of years, way before the town was there. Within 24 hours of the sea ice actually forming, these bears are gone."
Warmer temperatures mean the Bay is frozen for a shorter stretch each year, lengthening the time when the bears are forced onto land and not eating. As the ice disappears, researchers in Alaska report polar bears drowning, forced to swim between increasingly distant ice floes. Also, with less time on the ice to hunt, more bears are seen scavenging the beaches for whale carcasses.
"Certainly this is one of the warmest years I've ever seen," says Waterman. "Usually in November we're starting to see freeze up, and these fresh water ponds are still open water in them. And I don't know if I've ever seen it like that at this time."
Churchill's bear population has already fallen more than 20 percent in the past 17 years, and U.S. and Canadian researchers found this directly correlates to the loss of sea ice. The short-term predictions are dire.
"Are we worried? Yes, I'm afraid so," says Merv Gunter who, with his wife, owns and operates the Tundra Buggy Adventure. "I think we should do everything we can about it. And can we do anything more than that to stop climate change? No. So we will co-exist with that. We'll have to. As will the bears. They're a very tenacious and a very amazing species with their ability to evolve and to adapt."
"I'm worried, because it's the livelihood of a lot of people in this town," says Bob Penwarden. He and his wife own The Tundra Inn, a small tourist hotel off Churchill's main drag. "I believe home is here for those bears. I don't say these scientists are right. But I don't even believe they're right on this global warming. The bears, this is home. I may be dead wrong. And, they do wander, and hell knows where they go? But they'll be back, next spring."
Some folks in Churchill seem convinced that the bears will find a way to survive. That they'll learn to eat berries and evolve into grizzlies. The town has always gotten by on its pioneering spirit. It may be that they expect the same stubborn resilience out of their bears. But for the bears, it isn't a question of will.
"Natural selection can happen very quickly in, like, bacteria, because they can breed in 20 minutes," says Waterman. "Polar bears live 20 or 25 years. That means that for changes to occur genetically, it's going to take a little bit of time. And that's something they don't have."
For the polar bears of Churchill, time may be running out. But the bears are not alone. Across the world, some people are slowly waking up to the problem facing their own species, while others cling to their faith that nothing will change. Still other, like Myrtle Demeulles of Churchill, have faith their communities will adapt, even if they don't know how.
"We love this place. We learn to live with what's happening, except for this warm weather!" says Demeulles. "We just don't understand what the heck's going on."
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