Polar bear scientists have high hopes, low expectations for Paris climate summit

The waters of Hudson Bay are warming fast, and climate scientists and residents in Canada's sub-Arctic are doubtful the UN's Paris summit will come up with a deal hearty enough to stop the impact of climate change.

Hudson Bay waters warming fast, signs of climate change are everywhere

'These bears are worth more to me alive than dead'

7 years ago
Duration 5:19
Impact of climate change on polar bears affects ever aspect of life in Churchill, Man

This story is part of CBC News special coverage of climate change issues in connection with the United Nations climate change conference (COP21) being held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

On the western of coast of Hudson Bay, small chunks of ice float along the shoreline where salt water meets the tundra.

That is where, just east of Churchill, Man., dozens of polar bears pace back and forth, literally waiting for the bay to freeze over so they can go out and hunt seals.

Most haven't eaten a full meal since the ice melted in July. 

Kevin Burke makes his living "off these beautiful creatures," he says over the rumble of the engine and the clicking of cameras.

For 30 years, he has driven the tundra buggy — essentially a big bus on oversized tires — for Frontiers North Adventures, a local tour company that has guided thousands of tourists over one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet.

"I never get tired of looking at the bears," Burke says. But he is also concerned about the changes he has seen.

"I don't want to think of doom and gloom," he says. But "I don't want to see these bears disappear or starve to death." 

Tundra buggy driver Kevin Burke says changes due to climate change have been clear over last 30 years. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Once a self-described climate change denier, Burke now says that what he has seen in this northern environment has made him a firm believer.

On the tundra, he says, the shrubs are growing taller, the trails built on melting permafrost are getting rougher and the bears are staying on shore longer, waiting for the ice to come.

"If they don't get on the ice they don't get to hunt."

Bay up 3 C

Burke's observations are anecdotal, but there is science to back them up.

Studies have shown that in the last two decades the surface temperature of Hudson Bay has warmed by about three degrees Celsius.

"This time of year we should see more ice than we do right now," says Geoff York, the senior director of climate science for Polar Bears International, a conservation group focussing on polar bear habitat.

While the impact of global warming on polar bear populations is not fully understood yet, he says, while looking out at a mother and cub walking along the coastline, the warming of the bay is certainly keeping these Churchill-area bears on shore longer.

"In the last two or three decades we've seen a 20 per cent decline in this population, directly related to those changes" in climate, York says.

As he sees it, this region has a lot riding on the UN climate change conference currently underway just outside Paris.

The hope in Paris is for a global deal that would see greenhouse gas emissions cut enough to prevent a 2 C increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial times. 

However, looking at what the participant countries are bringing to the table, York is prepared to be disappointed.

"It's not going to be quite enough. If you tally everything together, we're still going to see temperatures rise 3.2 to 3.5 C," he feels. "That's not good enough."

York is not the only one concerned. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has also said that early commitments from the world's largest emitters won't be enough to keep global temperatures down. 

York is actually encouraged to hear that. 

"We're finally hearing leaders from some of the largest countries on Earth recognizing the severity of the threats that face us all."

A three degree change in the surface temperature of Hudson Bay is keeping polar bears on shore longer (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Threat and opportunity

If there is a deal in Paris, he says, it should be viewed as a starting point to keep pressure on decision makers.

As for the changes in the Arctic, they pose both a threat and opportunity.

On the one hand, a warming climate is helping open the area up.

Churchill has Canada's only northern deep water port, and the hope is that less ice could mean a longer shipping season. (Nothing has happened yet, mind you. In fact, the port just had one of its worst seasons in recent memory.) 

Geoff York of Polar Bears International looks out from a tundra buggy. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

On the other hand, the economy here is largely driven by tourism and a lot of that has to do with the polar bears who may see their numbers dwindle further if warming in this region doesn't stop. 

Each year about 10,000 tourists come here to look at the bears, each paying on average about $1,000 a day. 

As he steers his buggy over those rough tundra trails, Burke says a working climate deal is critical to preserving the way of life here.

"I want those bears, the wildlife, the land to be around for my children's children," he says.


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