bears, their white coats tinged with yellow after a summer of fasting on the tundra, are gathering here on the
western shores of the Hudson Bay, waiting for sea ice that once again will free them from land, allowing them to
Almost imperceptibly, this timeless tableau on treeless salt marshes is changing: the "Lords of the Arctic,"
North America's largest land carnivores, are 10 percent thinner and have 10 percent fewer cubs than they did 20
years ago. The culprit, scientists and residents here said, is climate change.
Today, on average, ice melts off the Hudson Bay three weeks earlier than 25 years ago. That means three weeks less
each year for the polar bears to capture and gorge on seal pups. And so the bay's 1,200 polar bears, the world's
southernmost polar bear population, are fast becoming worldwide symbols of climate change.
In mid-November, when the first adolescent male bears gingerly test the new ice here, protesters in The Hague are
to dress in sad-faced polar bear costumes and stage "die-ins" at opening sessions of negotiations over
the Kyoto Protocol, a three-year-old international treaty intended to cut greenhouse gases.
"The polar bear is coming to symbolize the disappearing north, the end of the kind of climate we all grew
up with," said Peter Tabuns, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, which has 120,000 members. "The
habitat that polar bears depend on is being wiped out. That is pretty strong stuff, emotionally and intellectually."
Ursus maritimus, or bear of the sea, is the kind of charismatic mammal favored for promoting environmental causes.
Fascinated by these "gentle giants," 10,000 tourists from around the world trek every fall to this northern
village of 1,100 residents, reachable only by train or plane. On the main street, where one not-so-gentle giant
killed a local man in 1984, affluent visitors flock to the Lazy Bear Lodge and Cafe, the Bear Country Inn and the
Great White Bear Gift Shop.
Bristling with cameras, tourists roll out daily in tundra buggies, heated, elevated, bear-proof viewing mobiles,
or lift off in sleek helicopters, with bears painted on the noses.
Every spring, bears prowl ice floes, smashing open snow lairs that seals create over breathing holes. Gorging on
pups, a 1,200-pound adult male bear can pack as much as 150 pounds of seal meat into his stomach.
"It's the big bear pigout," said Jane Waterman, a University of Central Florida biologist who has worked
here with Dr. Ian Stirling, the lead polar bear researcher in Manitoba. "When they come off the sea ice, they
are big bags of lard with feet."
But by all indicators, ice in the western Hudson Bay is breaking up earlier as temperatures rise.
"The trend for earlier breakup is really important for polar bears, because the spring is when polar bears
store most of their energy," said Dr. Stirling, a research biologist for the Canadian Wildlife Service. "If
bears are only able to feed for two weeks less than 20 years ago, that means two weeks less energy, two weeks less
fat than 20 years ago."
Since 1950, temperatures here have risen by half a degree Fahrenheit every decade. For this century, scientists
project that temperatures will rise by 4 to 11 degrees. If trends stay unchanged, within 30 years this sub-Arctic
region of treeless tundra could shift to New England-style temperate leafy forest, according to a climate change
model prepared by Environment Canada, a federal agency.
"One of the forecasts is that we will eventually lose ice in the Hudson Bay," said Dr. Stirling, who
has studied bears here for 30 years. "If that happens, we may lose bears in the bay."
Canada and Russia will be the two nations most affected by global warming in this century, predicted a report issued
in September by the World Wide Fund for Nature, a private group. With a polar bear staring from the cover, the
report predicted that in this province, about half the current habitats would be altered or lost, and that nearly
half of animal and plant species would have to migrate northward at the rate of half a mile a year to survive.
Arctic temperatures will rise over the next century by 5 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a third Canadian
report this year, titled "Climate Change and Canada's National Park System."
It examined how climate change would affect Arctic parks, including Wapusk National Park in Churchill, one of the
three largest polar bear maternity denning sites in the world. The federal scientists concluded: "The open
water season will increase by 90 days, forcing ringed seal and polar bear populations further north."
All the studies note that there are clear trends of climate change, despite year-to-year variations. People who
live here know all about the shift.
Summers have doubled from two months to four, said Peter Scott, science coordinator of the Churchill Northern Studies
Center, a research and tourism center.
"We are seeing changes with longer falls and earlier springs," agreed Mayor Mike Spence, who has lived
all of his 40 years here. Nostalgic for childhood winters, he said, "Back in the 60's and early 70's, it seemed
like we got a storm a day."
Up the coast, in Inuit communities like Arviat, mothers have complained that their children are developing a summer
skin rash for which there is no name in their language, Inuktitut. Nurses at the hospital here identified the rash
"The temperatures were a lot lower when I was growing up," Christopher Hart, a 32-year-old tugboat deckhand,
said at the international port here. "We used to go snowmobiling through the end of May. Now, we will be lucky
if we get to go in early May."
Onshore, at the port headquarters, a wall plaque reveals how the shipping season has expanded since the port opened
in 1929. Under the heading "The First Grain Ship to Open the Season," the first ship to dock here in
July appears in 1950. From 1980 to 1996, July dockings remained rare, accounting for four of 17 first arrivals.
But starting in 1997, every first arrival has been in July, including this year, a record-setting July 11.
Over the last 30 years, the expanse of sea ice remaining in the Hudson Bay on July 15 has decreased by one- third,
according to satellite survey research by the Canadian Ice Service, another federal agency. Reaching further back,
a study published recently in the journal Science says records kept by managers of the Hudson Bay Company in this
region indicate that 19th-century fur traders faced about three more weeks of river ice than river users today.
"Climate change is a two-edge sword," said Gary Doer, Manitoba's premier. "It helps the port. But
for those of us who like to see the beauty of the belugas and the polar bears, we would like to see it stop."
About 300 years ago, British fur traders built this village at the mouth of the Churchill River, a summer calving
site for thousands of beluga whales. In the fall, the town stands in the migratory path of the world's largest
concentration of polar bears, now increasingly cranky after losing three pounds a day since June.
Wildlife wardens, armed with noisemakers, tranquilizer guns and baited bear traps on wheels, patrol a polar bear
exclusion zone. Along this unfenced 3.5-mile perimeter, "Polar Bear Alert" signs warn visitors of the
dangers of walking unarmed on the tundra. At the airport, the polar bear jail has 28 temporary cells.
"I was up at 1:30 this morning," Wayde Roberts, the acting provincial conservation officer, said, weary
after responding to another night of calls to the town hot line (675-BEAR).
His November statistics show how polar bear moods reflect ice conditions. In 1999, when the bay froze three weeks
earlier than normal, he handled only 62 bear calls. In 1998, when the bay froze three weeks later than normal,
bear calls nearly doubled, hitting 115.
For Links about Polar Bears read the "Bare
Bear Facts" article in this issue