Climate change in Canada: adapt or perish

World mirror

Status: 07.11.2021 10:33 a.m.

Humans and polar bears – in Hudson Bay they have come to terms with one another for centuries. But climate change is robbing the bears of their habitat, and so Churchill is trying to adapt to the new situation.

By Christiane Meier, ARD Studio New York, currently Churchill

The first ice is slowly and tentatively forming on the banks of the Churchill River. Actually, ice floes should be piling up here and the temperature should be down to minus 20 degrees.

Christiane Meier
ARD capital studio

But this year the ice is late and the bears are waiting on the tundra. They have been ashore since spring and live largely on their fat reserves. When they run out after a long summer, they have to go back to the ice to hunt seals, their staple food.

Churchill has 900 residents and hundreds of tourists as well. Because when the ice comes, there are even more bears to watch as they return from land to the frozen sea. Almost as many bears as humans have successfully tried this coexistence over decades. Researchers estimate that around 1,000 polar bears survive the summer on the tundra.

Climate change is stressing the bears

Geoff York, a scientist at the Polar Bear International Institute in Churchill, has counted: According to his observation, the polar bears have already been on land for 146 days. After 180 days it will be critical in his estimation. But the bears are still in good shape.

That’s nice for the wealthy tourists who visit Churchill town to see polar bears in the wild, but Geoff knows it won’t stay that way in the long run; the bears will get weaker and weaker in the long run.

The longer and longer summers are signs of climate change, which is thawing the permafrost and stressing the bears. There has been a 30 percent decline in the bear population over the past thirty years. Climate action could buy time now, but he has no hope in the long run.

What happens when the permafrost thaws

Little Churchill experienced climate change first hand four years ago. The permafrost thawed under the railroad tracks, the rails sank, the city was completely cut off and could only be supplied by a kind of airlift. For Mayor Mike Spence, this disaster was primarily an incentive.

We see that climate change is here. But we also see this as an opportunity. It’s a threat, but also an opportunity to develop. In 25 to 30 years there will be no more ice here, which is good for shipping and bad for polar bears. But we have to deal with it.

The indigenous peoples of the area simply bought the railway together with investors, and the rails are now being made climate-proof. Because that’s expensive, the government helps too. Later, Mike Spence dreams, wheat and other grain will again be transported by rail to the port and from there to the east coast. Because Churchill would then have ice-free access to the major trade routes.

They place their hopes on the railroad in Churchill – but the state has to help financially.

Image: ARD New York

The legacy of the Cold War helps

The port is a legacy of the Cold War. Troops were stationed in Churchill until the 1960s, facing east, towards Russia. That is why there is the infrastructure that makes the complicated adjustment process possible in the first place.

In addition, the mayor has established modern polar research institutes in his city, the Churchill Northern Studies Center and the Churchill Marine Observation Facility. They are also linked to the hope of a good, perhaps even better, future.

But what remains of the tranquility in Churchill when the port and the railroad determine life, the residents ask themselves.

Image: ARD New York

Lots of attractions in Hudson Bay

But concerns about the endangered polar bears cloud the view of the future. They are currently bringing the city a lot of income, because whoever comes here has to put down a few dollars. But because the ice cannot be relied on, Spence is hoping for the other attractions: around 3,000 beluga whales give birth to their young in Hudson Bay and are just as big a tourist magnet as the bears in the summer months. Bird watchers also get their money’s worth. And then there are the northern lights, because they are not endangered by climate change, they appear reliable and spectacular.

It is at least doubtful whether a busy port would leave these natural treasures undisturbed. It is not entirely without irony that tourists leave a significant carbon footprint to see the last polar bears in the region while they are still there.

Nevertheless, it is clear to everyone in Churchill that even the most ambitious climate program can at best buy some time. The ice will never return in its old strength and that is why Churchill has imposed the ambitious adaptation program on himself: adapt or perish.

You can see these and other reports in Weltspiegel – on Sunday at 7:20 p.m. in Das Erste.

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