In many parts of the world, large social gatherings are still verboten, but luckily for scientists – and armchair animal enthusiasts – no one’s told the polar bears. As they do each year, the iconic Arctic creatures are set to gather in Manitoba’s Hudson Bay, and viewers from all over can tune in to watch them snooze, stretch, and spar from afar.
A natural occurrence that sees hundreds of bears congregate along the coast as they wait for temperatures to drop and sea ice to form, the Churchill conclave has spawned an annual event for humans as well: Polar Bear Week, kicking off this year on November 1 with educational programming, climate-change action points, and broadcasts straight from the tundra.
Anxious about the US election? Mark your calendar for a guided relaxation session called “Zen out with Polar Bears” on November 3. Curious about how polar bears get where they’re going? Sign up for “The Phenomena of Polar Bear Migration,” a live virtual field trip taking place on November 12. And then there are the live cams
“We’re gonna see a lot of sleepy bears for sure,” Alysa McCall, staff scientist and director of conservation outreach at Polar Bears International, tells Lonely Planet. “For the most part, they're trying to conserve energy – they haven't really had a good meal since maybe May or June. So we see a lot of sleeping and a lot of stretching – you know, working out the old bones.”
“But we also see a lot of curious bears,” McCall continues. Polar bears can overheat, she notes, so when the weather gets cooler – usually in November – they feel a bit friskier. “If we're lucky, we'll see a bit of sparring,” she says. “They might actually play-wrestle for us.”
In addition to monitoring the bears’ typical behaviors, scientists will be keeping an eye on how they respond to this year’s pandemic-induced environmental changes. “Churchill has a lot of tourism,” McCall says, and “in previous years, it was interesting to watch them interact with the tundra buggies in the area. There would be tourists on these big vehicles out on the trails, and [some of] the bears…would come up to the vehicle, stand on their hind legs, and check people out. But this year there's not nearly as many tourists, so it's going to be very curious to see how the bears fill their time – the bears that maybe would have looked to that stimulation after they'd been bored for months.”
“We don't like to anthropomorphize, but they're highly intelligent animals,” she says. “They have their own personalities, they react to things differently. You can see them assessing new situations.”
Polar bears have been classified as a vulnerable species for years, thanks to rapidly diminishing sea ice and other factors like pollution and disease, but this summer, as sea ice levels dipped to near-record lows, scientists revealed that the species is under serious threat. “Polar bears could become nearly extinct by the end of the century as a result of shrinking sea ice in the Arctic if global warming continues unabated,” the New York Times reported in July.
“Polar bears are iconic animals that act as a signal to the impact of global warming, and we hope Polar Bear Week encourages people to pause, appreciate, and listen to this species,” PBI executive director Krista Wright said in a press release. “If we act swiftly and collectively to make a bold transition to renewable energy, and away from fossil fuels, we can preserve polar bears for future generations.”
For more information, visit polarbearsinternational.org.
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