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Churchill Confronts Climate Change

According to records of temperature dating back to the 1880s, Churchill has seen an increase of 2 degrees Celsius since records began. This has led to major ecological impacts, including reducing polar sea ice, retreating glaciers, and less snowpack, which melts earlier in the season every year.

Perched near the northern peak of Manitoba, Churchill is renowned as the polar bear capital of the world. Nestled into the coast of Hudson’s Bay, Churchill is a prime example of the cohabitation of land between humans and animals. With 57,000 beluga whales and over 1,000 polar bears, Churchill brings tourists from across the globe. Every summer, the polar bears in the region typically eat much less as their fat stores are not required until the cold months. The cubs are the ones who eat the most, as their rapid growth is dependent on summertime intake.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, polar bears are the largest bears in the world and are the top predators in the Arctic, where they hunt on thick sea ice. As global climate increases and arctic ice continues to reduce in thickness and recede year to year, polar bears are losing their primary hunting territories. As their hunting regions deplete every year, polar bears are more often being seen moving inland to new areas.

Studies have shown that Hudson’s Bay is losing one day of sea ice per year, lessening the time polar bears can hunt. Over the last thirty years, the ice coverage of Hudson’s Bay has been reduced by approximately a month per year. Some years are better than others in terms of ice coverage, but the trajectory of declining ice coverage continues to worsen. As a result of moving off the ice and onto the land, polar bears are continually drawn toward civilization. Their acute sense of smell attracts them to garbage dumps, animal carcasses and food waste in towns. This increase in time spent on land has led to a rise in conflict between polar bears and human beings.

Living 20 to 25 years and weighing as much as 1,500 pounds, the threat that polar bears bring to local communities is clear. An aged bear will learn to access food within a community, out of dumpsters or trash cans, and may eventually teach their cubs to do the same.

While time spent on land increases for polar bears, human interactions also increase. Local authorities are taking every step possible to avoid killing the bears as they are already a species in decline. Scientists see reducing lost ice as the most crucial step in preventing further intrusions of polar bears into communities. Ultimately, if the bears are more able to feed themselves during the winter, they will be less inclined to enter towns looking for additional resources. Greater amounts of ice and an extended season for the bears to hunt will also lead directly to less time spent on shore.

As polar bears don’t hibernate during the winter, they typically spend their time on the frozen Hudson’s Bay hunting seals. While it is common for bears to spend the summer months on shore, the proximity to communities has increased as the time spent ashore has increased with shorter winters. Sea ice forms later in the year while simultaneously melting earlier than it used to. With the reduction of time spent hunting on the ice, polar bears are facing a situation where there is less time to feed during the winter.

A federally funded study found that between 1980 and 2020, the weight of the average polar bear during pregnancy in the region surrounding Churchill has decreased by 15 per cent. As a result, new births of polar bears are on the decline, reflected in an overall population decrease of 30 per cent from 1987 and 2016. A reduction in polar bears in the Churchill area has mixed responses among locals. After government jobs, tourism is the biggest employer for locals. While there are many aspects of arctic wildlife to draw tourists, polar bear expeditions are by far the greatest draw of international tourism to Churchill. Without the bears, there is a tremendous risk of lost tourism and lost income to the region.

Despite this, many argue that the loss of polar bears will not be as substantially impactful to locals as some suggest. Despite world-famous viewing tours, many in Churchill struggle to manage the increased cost of living. The infrastructure of Churchill is also facing climate-related challenges. In a projection made in 2020, it was determined Churchill has an average of 51 days per year below -30 C. By 2050, the projections indicate there will be less than 26 days per year below -30 C. The annual average temperature in Churchill is around -4.8 C and is expected to be -2.3 C by 2050 and is predicted to increase to 2 degrees C by the end of the century.

Among the most impactful changes occurring in the region is melting permafrost. Each year, as the spring changes to summer, the snow and ice on the ground’s surface melt, but the earth beneath the surface remains frozen. This is permafrost. As temperatures continue to rise, the annual thaw sinks deeper, further causing the permafrost to melt. This is an irreversible process which leads to the release of carbon and methane, greenhouse gasses, which further perpetuate the rise in temperature.

Melting permafrost also leads to a shift in the structure of the land. This creates an unstable base for buildings, which shift and adjust on the ground, which is becoming more unstable as the structural soundness of permafrost becomes increasingly unreliable. As this problem increases across the north, community leaders are working to address these issues and to keep citizens informed. One such suggestion involves working alongside Manitoba Hydro to create permafrost hazard maps, indicating places at greatest risk of succumbing to the impact of lost permafrost. Such mapping has previously been done in the Territories, but no such mapping has been done in northern Manitoba.

It is also crucial for officials and leaders in the community to address the impact that stagnant water has on increasing the rate of permafrost melts. Stagnant waters warm the ground it sits on, warming the ground more than it would be otherwise. Among other issues is how the permafrost affects water quality in the region as a result of water run-off systems which are ill-prepared to handle the melting permafrost.

While it is crucial to the long-term stability of northern communities to invest in issues such as proper drainage, there is little in the way of funding available for Churchill to properly protect itself and their citizens from the changes of climate change. In addition to drainage, building codes in the area need to be reassessed in order to safely comply with a changing landscape.

What many leaders also see as a necessary step forward is the inclusion of Indigenous people. As the community is forced into changing construction strategies by climate change, it is crucial that community members are at the forefront of decision-making throughout the process.

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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