Watch 1,000 Polar Bears Waiting to Migrate Across the Still Unfrozen North—Live

The organizers of Polar Bear Week are streaming video of the animals threatened by climate change as they gather for their annual journey.

(Photo: Paul J. Richards/Getty Images)

Nov 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

What’s it like to see a thousand polar bears gather in a Canadian town as they wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can begin their annual migration in search of seals and other chow?

Just watch below.

To promote Polar Bear Week, Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, is streaming live video of the animals arriving at the Hudson Bay shoreline in Churchill, Manitoba, often called the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”

Polar Bear Week, conducted in partnership with Polar Bears International and Frontiers North Adventures, features a roving studio of tundra buggies transmitting live images via high-definition cameras.

"The Arctic is an incredible natural cathedral, and these are the high priests of these lands," Explore.org founder Charles Annenberg said in an interview. “And when you see polar bears up close, you realize they’re really one of the most evolved creatures on the planet. And all they’re trying to do is come to shore to go home to eat."

Some scientists worry that the animals, the southernmost polar bear population, could be extinct by the end of the decade.

The reason? Warming temperatures in the Arctic region and a shorter season of packed sea ice that allows the bears to venture out over the water in pursuit of wintertime prey—ringed seals and other marine mammals.

“When I first started here about 30 years ago, the population was about 1,200 bears, and now we’re down to about 800,” team member Andrew Derocher, a biology professor at the University of Alberta, said in a phone interview from the tundra outside Churchill.

“There’s virtually nothing we can do in the longer term to turn this one around,” Derocher added. “In all estimates, they will probably blank out by midcentury, but this population could slip away in a few years if you got a really bad string of warm conditions.”

So far this season, the weather has been mild. “It’s not normal that the bears should still be sitting on land, but there’s absolutely no ice on the bay yet, which we would expect this time of year,” Derocher said. “It definitely needs to be a lot colder before the bears are going anywhere.”

Polar bears sometimes snack on terrestrial food such as beached kelp, berries, or goose eggs, but, as Derocher noted, seal blubber is “really what makes them work.” The bears consume up to 200 pounds of fat per meal.

Their hunting season is shrinking. A 2013 study in the Journal of Animal Ecology found that an abbreviated ice-pack season caused by climate change is limiting access to the fat-rich seals.

“Changes to the timing of migration have resulted in polar bears spending progressively longer periods of time on land without access to sea ice and their marine mammal prey,” the study concluded.

The theme of this year’s Polar Bear Week is “Take the next step!” in which viewers worldwide are asked to sign the "Petition for Polar Bears," urging world leaders to combat climate change at upcoming United Nations meetings in Lima, Peru, and Paris.

The idea is to encourage individuals, schools, and businesses to take energy-saving action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Viewers are also invited to create videos describing their pledges and share them with the hashtag #SaveOurSeaIce.

Back in Churchill, scientists are considering options to help the bears, including feeding them with products such as Purina Bear Chow, used in zoos. Some people have suggested shooting seals and bringing them to shore. But Derocher said those animals could soon become endangered themselves because of climate change.



“The logic of shooting one endangered species to feed another one doesn’t really work well,” he said.

But if the Churchill bears are doomed, what’s the point in taking action?

“This population is time-limited, but the population to the north will benefit from anything we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Derocher said.

Derocher cited the U.N. report on climate change issued Sunday that calls for zero emissions of energy-related greenhouse gases by 2100 to halt climate change.

“The report said the time to act is now,” he said. “This is not a future-generation issue.”