The "Polar Bear Capital of the World" is Facing a Lukewarm Future
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
An alarm pierces the air, disrupting an otherwise quiet night in the Canadian arctic.
“Oh don’t worry about that, it’s just the curfew siren,” reassures my host, long-time Churchill resident Koral Carpentier-Hrominchuk. “It goes off every night to remind people to stay indoors. The bears are more likely to wander into town when it’s dark.”
Polar bears are an inescapable part of life in Churchill. Around 900 people call the town home, but each autumn just as many bears pass through the area, migrating to Hudson’s Bay. They’ve been fasting for months. Now they’re waiting for the ocean to freeze so they can spend the winter hunting seals.
As Carpentier-Hrominchuk explains, nightly sirens are not the only adaptation Churchillers have had to make for their furry neighbors. A Polar Bear Alert program is employed year-round. Armed with noisemaking “bear bangers”, traps, and as a last resort, rifles, they ensure bears don’t get too comfortable hanging around town, keeping both residents and bears safe. Persistent bears are taken to “polar bear jail,” and then helicoptered away once they’ve finished serving their “sentence.” It's well understood that one should never lock their car doors, just in case a pedestrian should need a fast escape route.
Sharing your streets with the world’s largest land carnivore can make life inconvenient, but it’s also what makes it possible. Churchill is a tourist town, and thousands of people visit in a typical year, forming the backbone of the local economy.
This also means that as climate change continues to accelerate, Churchill may be among Earth’s first communities confronted with the economic realities of our warming planet.
Sea ice on Hudson’s Bay has been freezing later and melting earlier over the last few decades, meaning bears have less time to fatten up for their summer fast. Some are starving to death, while future cubs are in jeopardy. Females require significant fat stores to sustain a successful pregnancy – something fewer are capable of doing. The Western Hudson Bay population (the population around Churchill) shrunk 43% between 1987 and 2016 according to Polar Bears International.
Declining bears means declining dollars for Churchill, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial shrinking iceberg. Climate change threatens livelihoods all over the world. Rising sea levels may cause trillions of dollars in damages and increasing temperatures will make millions of acres of agricultural land unproductive.
Climate change may spell the end of Churchill’s current lifestyle. Ironically, it may also be its economic salvation.
While there are no roads to Churchill, there is a rail line. More importantly, it has Canada’s only deep-water port in the Arctic. Dwindling sea ice means more accessible arctic shipping lanes, specifically a potentially navigable Northwest Passage.
The Northwest Passage winds through the Canadian archipelago and was, until recently, impassable due to year-round ice. This is no longer the case, and companies are exploring the possibility of maritime traffic using it to cut the journey from Asia to Europe almost in half, saving millions in shipping costs. As the only community in Canada with the necessary existing infrastructure, Churchill could turn from sleepy tourist town to vital shipping hub. Canadian oil and mineral producers are also eager for new ways of accessing a thirsty Asian market.
Furthermore, as permafrost loosens in the tundra, untold mineral wealth is becoming accessible, and mining companies are eager for the opportunities a warmer Arctic might bring them.
However, the bears aren’t just a paycheck to Churchill - they’re part of the culture.
“We live in good company with the bears,” explains Carpentier-Hrominchuk. “So I think the prospect of shipping oil through Churchill is perceived largely negatively by locals. In the event there was ever a disaster, it’s just not worth the risk.” A bear banger goes off outside, briefly interrupting her.
She continues, “It definitely is something that could be in our future, and I think we’re all aware of that. I try to stay open to the idea.”
Churchill has created a unique livelihood for its residents by adapting to life alongside polar bears. The real challenge however, may be adapting to life without them.