British Columbia

Ian Stirling, polar bear scientist, wins $50K lifetime achievement award

Ian Stirling, who has spent five decades studying the Canadian Arctic and won a $50,000 lifetime achievement award Wednesday, discusses the "dark period" he says is ending for government science.

Researcher recalls a 'big aha moment' in 50 years of work and the 'dark period' ending for government science

Ian Stirling worked for 37 years studying polar bears, seals and sea ice in Canada's Arctic with the Canadian Wildlife Service, and still publishes research as an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta. (Ian Stirling)

It says something about the impact of a scientist's work that when he goes to talk to school children about his research, they already know the story.

You probably do too: Sea ice is melting, and that's hurting polar bears who need the ice to hunt seals.

The science demonstrating that relationship to the world was led by a Canadian researcher, Ian Stirling, who today was awarded $50,000, chosen by his fellow scientists for the Weston Family Prize for lifetime achievement in northern research.

"To be perfectly honest, I was rather overwhelmed," said Stirling, shortly after he received the award at an Arctic research conference in Vancouver.

"I've been in this business for about 50 years," he said, recalling a time when there was so little money to study the Canadian Arctic he left for New Zealand. "My tremendous sense today was of how much has changed."

The prize, created in 2011, is given by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation to an Arctic researcher chosen by the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies.

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      The 'big aha moment'

      Stirling has spent decades documenting one of the most widely known stories in climate change, but that wasn't his goal.

      "We were not actually setting out to study climate change, we were interested in the natural fluctuation in the ocean and how that affected seals and bears."

      However, working as a federal government scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Stirling had the kinds of long-term data that are costly to gather — and unsexy to fund — that show patterns over time.

      He was witnessing a "phenomenally rapid change" in western Hudson Bay while tracking sea ice breakup in the spring, and what that did to polar bears and the seals they hunt.

      "Because we had a long-term database, as time went on, we suddenly realized that we had the data that actually showed that these things truly were happening, and truly were having negative effects on polar bears," he said.

      "That was a big aha moment."

      The work, published in 1999, showed that earlier sea ice breakup meant a shorter window for the polar bears to hunt, because they rely on the ice as a platform to stalk seals. A CBC report on his research at the time said the sea ice breakup was coming two weeks earlier than it used to.

      Now, "it's over three weeks earlier than it was only 30 years ago," said Stirling, who is still an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta. "That is just a phenomenally rapid change."

      Science leaves 'a dark period'

      As a scientist working on big, furry, iconic animals, Stirling had many opportunities to talk about his work, and he remembers when federal scientists were rated every year for their public engagement with the media.

      He retired from the government in 2007 in part because of the Harper government's muzzling of scientists and cuts to research.

      "We've been in a very dark period," said Stirling, who is still a research scientist emeritus with Environment Canada. "It was very clear what direction we were going politically in terms of political control of science, especially the inability to talk to media."

      He calls the Trudeau government's rapid unmuzzling of scientists "a breath of fresh air coming into federal science."

      A much harder ship to turn, however, is the human-caused warming of the Arctic, where Stirling fears about half the polar bear populations will disappear in coming decades, based on climate projections.

      "We have changed the Arctic in huge ways and that has been a very sad thing to document."

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