Lessons From the Edge of the Earth

“What do you think? About a three?” Casandra, a young woman my age, asked. I rose from my seated position by the furnace, my seven layers of clothing making my movement a bit awkward. It was cold, very cold. As I crossed the aisle to where she was standing the tundra buggy shook again. I caught myself on the back of a seet.

A tundra buggy looks like a giant bus set on monster truck wheels. It’s built to weather the harsh elements of Churchill Manitoba’s high tundra. It’s built like a tank; hard, thick, impenetrable. But the creature rocking our buggy was evolved, without a furnace or strong metal or giant tires, to persist here. He was certainly no pushover either.

the Tundra Buggy
the Tundra Buggy

Casandra, intensely focused on the body fat index sheet, had barely moved. I made it to the window and peered down at a large male polar bear. Our tour group was breaking for a lunch of hot soup. The smell must have been irresistible. He stood now on his back legs, his nose reaching up ten feet above ground, seeking the source of the tempting scent. His forepaws braced against the cold metal of the tundra buggy.  His shoulders tensed. I braced.

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The buggy shook again, back and forth like ship on rough waters. He was testing us, trying to figure out if he had a chance. The buggy held steady. It was built to take on bears even bigger than this one. Our bear came to the same conclusion. He sat back on his haunches to consider his next move.

“Definitely a three,” I agreed.

I scribbled it down in our chart. The body fat index was meant to give us an indication of the condition of the Churchill polar bears. The chart ranged from 1 (incredibly skinny) to 5 (quite fat). Three was very good for this time of year. It was November, the end of months of fasting. Polar bears are lipivores, meaning that they eat fat. Their prey, mostly seals and small whales, lives out in the ocean, so they can only hunt when the water becomes covered in a thick ice sheet. When the ice melts they are trapped on land without food until the ice returns.

This is where people come in. We’ve all heard the news and the commercials and the general upset over the sad state of the polar bear. As the earth warms the ice melts sooner and takes longer to reform. The polar bears are stranded for longer and longer. The buggy drivers confirmed that the ice should have been back by now, and that they had seen fewer bears this year than last.

blog 2I reached over to the back seat and pulled out a strange contraption; a camera set in the center of two parallel black metal bars with a laser pointer on either side. Churchill is the front line. It’s here, in the southernmost reaches of their range, that scientists hope to study the first effects of climate change on polar bears.

You see, polar bears are actually rather hard to find and track. It takes a lot of money, a lot of effort, and a lot of nerve. That in mind, it’s not surprising that there’s not a lot of data out there. That’s where people come in yet again.

As our polar bear wandered a short distance away, I turned the lasers on.  Casandra took over, maneuvering our crude device to try and get both laser points on the bear. When she had succeeded, she took a picture. This was the most vital part of her data collection. It was her hope that this tool would allow us to figure out the size of a bear based on a photograph.

If she was successful, it would mean that polar bear researchers could employ an army of citizen scientists. People come from across the world to snap just a single photo of a polar bear. If those same people send researchers their photos, we get an incredible database of the population throughout the season.

So where does that get us? Can ordinary citizens save the polar bear? I don’t know. In the end, it’s the choice of ordinary citizens whether or not to use cloth bags, to recycle, to conserve light and electricity, to carpool or walk, or not to do any of those things. It’s choices like those that got us into this mess, and the world can’t change unless ordinary people change it. It’s a way of thinking that’s always been said, but has seldom been believed.

I know the news said a while back that we’ve done irreversible (at least on our time scale) damage to the glaciers. The Churchill population and the people who make their living off the polar bears may be operating on borrowed time. But the information that comes from citizen scientists can help us answer the question that’s on all of our minds. Will they make it? Could they survive the actions of another species carried out far away from their icy world?  What’s really going to happen to the polar bears?

Our large male had wandered off towards the willows, likely looking for a place to bed down for the evening. All that was left of him was a long line of tracks leading back towards the ocean. The water was finally starting to freeze over. This male, at least, would likely make it back home to the frozen waters far away from any solid ground. He would feast on seals and seek out females until the warming seasons forced him back here, where he would wait for the ice once more.

Blog 6The tundra buggy was quiet now. Everyone was reflecting on the creature they had just encountered. Each held a different impression, but it was easy to see in their faces that they had all been awed and inspired. It was the encounter of a lifetime.

People are powerful, whether we think so or not. As our world becomes more technological, and information becomes increasingly easy to access, the citizen scientist becomes ever more valuable, ever more influential, a true force of nature. We have our doubts and our fears, but through the power of knowledge and self education, we can overcome any obstacle.

The polar bear knows little doubt. He knows the ice will come. He knows this because it has always come. As I watched the setting sun turn the snowy tundra a soft pink and orange, I liked to think that he was right.

For more information on this project, visit Polar Bears International’s website.

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One thought on “Lessons From the Edge of the Earth”

  1. I felt like I was there…I need to go get my jacket….

    I am profoundly glad that you will be among the naturalists leading us in thoughtful co-existence with the inhabitants of our ever evolving environment.

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