Hot For Climate Change
Remote. Beautiful. Extreme. Churchill, Manitoba held a fascination over RMC junior Bo Walker, who is double majoring in environmental science and environmental management and policy.
When presented with an opportunity to visit the arctic location, he didn't think twice.
"Hudson Bay, polar bears, tundra, and native culture – what wasn't to like?" he said. "I spent my freshman year at school in Alaska and have had a fascination with life that thrives in extreme environments ever since."
Traveling with a group of five RMC students and two professors, Bo set off on a journey into the wild.
October 12: We loaded up the van and left just after 6 a.m. With the mixed group in the van, conversations drifted from juvenile banter, to birding, to environmental issues, but it carried us through an uneventful drive to the Canadian border.
October 13: 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls prepared us to get to the airport at 5:30 for our flight to Churchill.
We landed in another world than the one we left.
"It was cold and very windy, as expected, but where was the snow? When I pictured sub-arctic in my head, I saw snow and ice, but we only had one dusting of snow while we were there."
After unpacking at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, the research center where we stayed, we left to find our first polar bear.
"I'm not really sure there's any way to really prepare for one's first polar bear sighting. The bear was far off in the distance and hard to spot against the stark grey sky. The second bear, however, was only a hundred yards away and so magnificent."
October 14: The next morning, we were ready for a full day of Churchill. The environment was still nothing like we expected.
“The wind – it never seemed to stop blowing; it was either blowing hard or harder. The simplistic beauty of the landscape was a bit of a surprise. There was something wonderful about the land in its lack of notable geographic features – like mountains or glaciers – and the seemingly desolate quiet. I suppose it possesses a practical beauty – one of plants and animals that lived life in the margins of existence, where life is lived from moment to moment and focuses on mere survival.”
October 15: Today we visited the home of our guide’s friend, a woman who lives in ‘polar bear country’ year round. The precautions against polar bear invaders were impressive.
We also found a bear sleeping, as though he was just waiting for us to come by.
“We encountered the bears near the end of the ice-free season, which is their 'lean' season. The bears looked somewhat thin and seemed fairly inactive. Although such appearance and behavior are common during the lean season, to know that the ice – the bears' preferred and natural habitat – may still be weeks away from forming and might, one day, not form at all was a hard bit to swallow. The bears we saw during our trip are indicative of many polar bear populations around the world – it was so hard to watch those awesome creatures without wondering what their fate will be in the coming years of climate change."
October 16: Polar bears spend half of the year alone, in the dark, and out on the ice, so they tend to be very curious and love to get some socialization when they can. We found a five-year-old bear taking shelter in some willows to escape the wind and rain. He was playful and just enjoying his time out of the wind and rain.
“This could potentially be my only chance to see wild polar bears before they go extinct … a likely scenario, I’m afraid.”
October 17: Our last full day in Churchill, we headed out to experience the beauty and intensity of the low arctic one last time. The howling wind created perfect conditions to play in the sea foam.
“I’ve always loved the smell of the sea. I enjoyed the short hikes we would make around the coast of the Hudson Bay.”
Returning to the centre to shower off the smell of sea foam, we gathered for a final dinner and our guide shared some northern poetry with us.
“I really enjoyed meal times – it was always nice to sit at the table with the whole group, enjoying good food and laughing.”
October 18: The last morning in the arctic came far too soon. A delayed flight and a 14-hour drive later and we were back in Billings.
Eight days in the arctic changed the trajectory of Bo’s life. An environmental science and environmental management and policy double major, he’s now considering a career in arctic and alpine research.
“I’ve taken a much greater interest in climate change and climate change legislation,” he said. “I used to write climate change off as the ‘token’ environmentalist’s rallying cry, but after witnessing the first-hand effects of a warming environment on arctic wildlife, it’s hard for me to ignore the significance of this issue.”
After spending time at the Churchill Northern Studies Research Centre, Bo has a stronger understanding of the effects of climate change, but there is much left to learn.
“It’s hard to imagine what changes await the arctic ecosystem in the coming years, let alone the changes that climate change will bring upon the rest of the world,” he said.
Bo’s fascination with the arctic is even stronger after having spent time experiencing the beauty of nature’s extremes.