How the changing climate will affect polar bears

A polar bear lays in the snow
A polar bear on view during Sven Sundgaard's trip to Churchill, Manitoba.
Sven Sundgaard | MPR News

MPR News meteorologist Sven Sundgaard just got back from leading a learning vacation with 12 other Minnesotans to Churchill, Manitoba — the “polar bear capital of the world.” Sundgaard, along with Doug Clark from the University of Saskatchewan, conducted lectures on the changing climate of the region and its impact on polar bears. 

It takes a special kind of hardy person to live out on the wind-whipped tundra off Hudson Bay. Dave Daley and his rescued sled dogs have lived here their whole lives.

“I’ve never had to kill a bear — well a polar bear. I like eating black bears. The point is I’ve been charged several times by bears,” Daley said.

The people of Churchill, Manitoba, fully realize the potential dangers of living with polar bears, especially during “bear season.”

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“Compared to the other bear species, polar bears are way more likely to exhibit predatory behavior on people.” Doug Clark said.

He’s a scientist that’s studied polar bear behavior for decades, and more recently has tried to understand what might cause more polar bear and human interactions: 

Polar bears in snow-2
MPR News meteorologist Sven Sundgaard just got back from leading a learning vacation with 12 other Minnesotans to Churchill, Manitoba — the “polar bear capital of the world.”
Sven Sundgaard | MPR News

“All the great research that’s been done on bear-human interactions over the years was all done with the assumption that the physical environment, the biological environment, was stable and that’s no longer the case,” Clark said. “We need to be looking more closely at what environmental variability will mean for interaction of all bear species. If things changing means things are likelier to go bad, we probably need to rethink the rules and adapt.” 

Those rules are changing. The arctic and subarctic regions are warming at a pace faster than the rest of the planet and that has impacts on the planet’s biggest land predator. 

“Here in Hudson Bay, every year the ice melts out for typically four or five months. That time of year that the ice melts and stays out has grown longer on average the past few decades,” Clark said. “Your own work here shows the bumpy signal and it can really vary year to year, but the long term trends are really clear.” 

Polar bears need sea ice to hunt their main source of food: seals. More days on land means polar bears and humans could be facing each other more, but every bear is different and the local people understand that dynamic.

Daley sums up living with polar bears: “Bears are like dogs. They have different personalities, too. I’ve seen mean bears, shy bears. I’ve seen disrespectful bears and respectful bears. It’s just a matter of getting to know your area, who lives in there and what you have to deal with.” 

The prevailing thought has been that skinny bears may be the bigger problem, looking for a meal and potentially running into people, but Clark’s recent work shows that might not be the case.

“It turns out that skinny bears, around here at least, are no more likely to come around camps or the study center any more than other bears,” Clark said. “The main push is how long they’ve been off the ice.” 

This year has seen a long period on land for polar bears. The ice went out early this summer with 90 degree temperatures recorded in Churchill — the 10th hottest ever recorded. 

Clark said the activity we saw this year was unusual compared to my previous two visits: “Just going in and out of town we’ve seen bears, which seems unusual, too, and this year we have a late freeze up again.”

“This is a really interesting year. It’s not abnormal to see a lot of bears around this year, you’re right — it’s a really busy year for bears,” Clark said. “People are seeing them all the time. Honestly I’m surprised we didn’t see one today given what we were doing and where we were, but this is a year where everyone’s saying ‘be on your toes.’” 

An increasing number of years with bad ice is leading to a decline in the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population. A recent survey showed a 27 percent decline in just five years. Some of that was movement to other areas, but some was a significant drop. 

“Reproduction of the Western Hudson Bay population is still very low. Survival of subadults is really low,” Clark said. “Once a bear makes it to adulthood, they’re usually OK. But it’s those younger years that are the toughest on them.” 

It’s unlikely polar bears will go extinct soon, but they will almost certainly disappear from some of their current range.

I asked Clark if Churchill will still be the “polar bear capital of the world” in a century:  “I think in a century it’s a fairly safe bet to say probably not. But at the same time, I don’t think the species is going to go extinct.”

There’s been an important shift in recent years involving Indigenous people and local populations in the north in the management and science of polar bears, climate and conservation.

“A lot of northern communities have things done to them in the name of science and conservation, and there’s some redress to be had and we need to do a better job because those folks deserve us doing a better job than has been the case so far,” Clark said. “And they’ll be the most affected or not by the success of the polar bear.”

“They’ve got the most at stake in all of this. Really it’s the fundamental principle of fairness: those with the most at stake should have a say in the decisions.”

Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Hey, do you have a bucket list trip? For some folks, it's seeing the polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Churchill is world famous because it lies on the migration path of the mammoth white bears.

MPR meteorologist Sven Sundgaard just got back from leading a learning vacation of 12 other Minnesotans to Churchill, Manitoba. He, along with Dr. Doug Clark from the University of Saskatchewan, conducted lectures on the changing climate of the region and the impact on polar bears. Here's more from Sven and the tundra.

[WIND HOWLING]

SVEN SUNDGAARD: It takes a special kind of hardy person to live out on the wind-whipped tundra off Hudson Bay. Dave Dailey and his rescued sled dogs have lived here their whole lives.

DAVE DAILEY: I've never had to kill a bear. Well, a polar bear. I like eating black bears, but I mean, the point is that I've faced down-- I've been charged several times by bears.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: The local people of Churchill, Manitoba, fully realize the potential dangers of living with polar bears, especially during bear season.

DOUG CLARK: Compared to the other bear species, polar bears are way more likely to exhibit predatory behavior on people.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: Dr. Doug Clark is a scientist that studied polar bear behavior for decades and more recently has tried to understand what might cause more polar bear/human interactions.

DOUG CLARK: All the great research that has been done on bear/human conflicts over the years was all done with the assumption that the physical environment, the biological environment, was stable. And now we know that that's no longer the case.

So I think we need to be looking in the bear/human conflict and bear/human interaction world more closely at what environmental variability is likely to mean for interactions between people and bears of all species. And if things changing means that things are likelier to go bad, then we probably need to rethink the rules and adapt.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: Those rules are changing. The Arctic and subarctic regions are warming at a pace faster than the rest of the planet, and that has impacts on the planet's biggest land predator.

DOUG CLARK: Here in Hudson Bay, every year the ice melts out for typically about four or five months. That amount of time that the ice melts out and stays melted out has been growing longer on average over the past few decades.

And you know, your own work, which you've been showing people here the last few days, really, really clarifies that it's kind of a bumpy, noisy signal. And it can really vary year to year, but the long-term trends are quite clear.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: Polar bears need sea ice to hunt their main food, seals. More days on land means polar bears and humans could be facing each other more. But every bear is different, and the local people understand that dynamic.

DAVE DAILEY: Like, bears are like dogs. They have different personalities, too. I've seen mean bears. I've seen shy bears. I've seen curious bears, you know. I've seen disrespectful bears, and I've seen respectful bears. So it's just a matter of getting to know your area, who lives in there, and what you have to deal with.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: The prevailing thought has been that skinny bears may be the bigger problem, looking for a meal and potentially running into people. But Dr. Clark's recent work shows that might not be the case.

DOUG CLARK: It turns out that skinny bears, around here at least, are no more likely to come around camps or the Study Center than any other bears. The big push comes from just how long they've been stuck on shore off the ice.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: This year has been a long period on land for polar bears. The ice went out early this summer, with 90 degree temperatures recorded in Churchill, their 10th hottest ever recorded.

SUBJECT: Just in going in and out of town, we've seen a couple of bears, which seems a little unusual, too. And this year we have a late freeze-up again.

DOUG CLARK: Yeah, so this is a really interesting year. And it's not-- it's not abnormal to see a lot of bears around. I mean, by any standards, there are a bunch around every year. This year, you're right. This is a really busy landscape for bears, and people are seeing them all the time.

Honestly, I was surprised we didn't see one today. Kind of glad, but given what we were doing and where we were. But yeah, this is a year where everybody says, yeah, you got to be on your toes this year because there are just so many around.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: An increasing number of years with bad ice is leading to a decline in the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population. A recent survey showed a 27% decline in just five years. Some of that was movement to other areas, but some was a significant drop.

DOUG CLARK: Reproduction in the Western Hudson Bay population is still very low. Survival of subadults is very low. Once a bear makes it to adulthood, it's likely to do OK, but it's those younger years that are the toughest on them.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: It's unlikely polar bears will go extinct anytime soon, but they will almost certainly disappear from some of their current range.

Will Churchill be the polar bear capital of the world in a century, do you think?

DOUG CLARK: So I think a century is probably a fairly safe bet to say probably not. But at the same time, I don't think the species is going to go extinct.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: There's been an important shift in recent years involving Indigenous people and local populations in the North in the management and science of polar bears, climate, and conservation.

DOUG CLARK: A lot of Northern communities have had a lot of things done to them in the name of science and conservation. And there's some redress to be had, and we need to do a better job because those folks deserve us doing a better job than often has been the case so far.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: And they'll be most affected by the success or not of the polar bear.

DOUG CLARK: They've got the most at stake in all of this. So really, it's a fundamental principle of fairness, that those with the most at stake should have the greatest say in decisions.

CATHY WURZER: That's MPR meteorologist Sven Sundgaard. Churchill, Manitoba is where he was last week. He's on the line right now. Hey, welcome back.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: Hey, thanks for having me. It was nice to come back yesterday afternoon to 55-degree temperatures here. But at the same time, it is kind of alarming because it sits 1,000 miles straight north of us. When we're warm, they're warm, too. It's all relative, of course. But that's leading to part of the big problem that we were just talking about there.

CATHY WURZER: It seems like it's a major, major problem. I cannot imagine. I've never seen a polar bear up close, beyond being in a zoo. Did you see any at all when you were there?

SVEN SUNDGAARD: We saw 31 polar bears in total, Cathy. Yeah, so this is the place to see them. But yeah, this was a record, even for me. This was my third visit to the area. And because of the activity that we were seeing this year, as I mentioned, the long on land season was leading to more activity.

So there were more bears in town. We saw a polar bear just even near the airport when we were about to leave on Saturday from Churchill, and that's unusual. So they've got a polar bear patrol that tries to scare them away, but there's been more of those interactions because the bears are restless. They're waiting for that ice to form so they can get out and hunt seals.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my gosh. Did you see any cubs?

SVEN SUNDGAARD: We did not see any this year, you know. And that anecdotally matches up with what Dr. Clark was talking about, that the reproduction of the Western Hudson Bay population is low. The first time I was there eight years ago, we saw three different mothers with cubs. And the last time I was there last year, we saw one mother with a cub. But this year, we saw none.

Now there were some there reported. There was a mother that had been seen with three cubs because they do give birth to litters. They give birth to two or three. A lot of people don't realize that. But increasingly, all of those are not surviving. And sure enough, there were reports that that third cub early last week was seen dead. So it's just a tough season this year.

CATHY WURZER: You mentioned that there are so many bears there in Churchill. And there was the comment about each bear has a different personality. There are disrespectful bears. I don't know. I'm not sure. What is a disrespectful bear? How are they acting specifically?

SVEN SUNDGAARD: Yeah, you know, it was our first day in Churchill. On our way between the actual town to the research center that we were staying at, we saw a bear and a dog kind of sizing each other up through a fence at a local residence. And those are the kind of things that we're seeing more and more when you have a season like this.

So nothing came of that, but these bears are really smart, really skilled hunters. Because you can imagine trying to hunt a seal requires a lot of patience and intelligence. So it can really vary. Some bears are more skittish around humans, and some are willing to take that risk if it could mean a meal of some sort, whether it's garbage, compost. Polar bears are one of the only animals that will hunt a human.

CATHY WURZER: Hmm, OK. Say, you talked about the late freeze up on Hudson Bay. How are things there now?

SVEN SUNDGAARD: Yeah, so it was cold to end the week. Last week we had five consecutive days of 30 degrees or warmer, which is really warm up there. They should be basically what we see in mid-January. Should be in the teens for highs, near 0 for lows. And it did drop, but now they're back up to 28 today.

Big storm is headed that way. They're looking at 60 to 70 mile-an-hour wind gusts tomorrow off of Hudson Bay. So that will help to bring back the ice. But south winds that they're seeing today pushes the ice out. But with that, if you can get the consistent cold, the ice does develop quickly this time of year.

So it was only about 3% of Hudson Bay that covered in ice a week ago. But now, it's doubled to about 6% But the general rule is you need about 30% of the Bay covered for most of the bears to get out on the ice.

So we're still far from that, but if we can get some cold-- and it looks like more of that is coming next week-- it should freeze up. But either way, it's going to be a late ice-out. Thanksgiving is the average date of freeze-up. That's the modern normal, which is already a week or two later than it used to be 30 or 40 years ago.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. So interesting. Sven, thank you so much.

SVEN SUNDGAARD: Absolutely. My pleasure.

CATHY WURZER: MPR meteorologist Sven Sundgaard.

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