Feature | Henrietta Hammant

Climate change ABCs – Art, Bears and Culture

This piece is part of a two part series on polar bears in Churchill. The other post is a collection of photographs taken by Tomas Taylor, depicting polar bear activity around Churchill, Canada, Churchill polar bears.

Night time in Churchill – a small town hunkered down in the elbow of Hudson’s Bay in sub-arctic Canada – and the thermometer has dipped to -11°C. By January it will be closer to -30°C and with wind-chill, even colder. But for now, in mid November, it’s cold enough for the start of something  that has drawn countless hearts to Churchill and the Wapusk National Park. A silent, creeping revolution is happening.


Sea ice forms in stages and in some cases, rather like that John Green quote about falling in love: slowly, and then all at once. The sea around Churchill has been known to freeze to the horizon in one night. But this evening, the signs have been amassing. The grease ice, named because of the layer it forms over the water’s surface, has been thickening everyday that the temperature has skimmed below 0°C and now, a thin sheet forms. Dark at first, this layer lightens as it thickens but is still moveable by the wind, which piles layer upon layer, forming rafts of ice. Slowly, the ice thickens into stability, its underside a smooth bright line between the world beneath and the world above. Its surface will soon be strong enough to hold a bear.


It is the bears who have arrived now in Churchill. Their great bodies built for power but built, also, for walking. Walking for food, to mate and now towards the ice. They come alone, or else in tiny family groups – mothers with cubs – skating along the shoreline, padding through tundra, squeaking over ponds of freshwater that froze before the sea. They wade in the snow past smoke-smudge snowy owls and ptarmigan snowballs, Arctic foxes the size of house cats and Arctic hares the size of small dogs. Increasingly, too, they walk past people, in cars and buses and tundra buggies –  another autumn migration.


But why is Churchill such a hub of migratory activity? Hudson’s Bay is huge – more like a shallow sea – and there are many more private places for bears to be. Indeed, some of them will have been in those private places all summer. Waiting. But the sea ice in Churchill forms earlier in the year than in many other parts of the bay. The mouth of the Churchill River intermingles freshwater with the sea and this sweet water freezes at a higher temperature than the salt water. The winds and currents that work their way around the bay also push ice formed in the north down into this small shelf of land, gathering it here for more ice to form. These geographical idiosyncrasies have come to lend Churchill its name as the Polar Bear Capital of the world. The ice forms first here and so this is where the bears must wait.


It can come as a surprise that polar bears are classed as marine mammals (like whales or seals or manatees), but their lives are tied to the sea. They are ice obligates – completely dependent upon the sea ice for their existence. They feed on seals which haul out onto the floes and have their pups there – tiny bundles of fat which allow the polar bear to sustain itself right through the summer months, until the winter comes again. Not fast enough in the water to catch seals without the ice, these bears have always lived a boom and bust lifestyle, eating and fasting for months at a time.


But every week that the formation of the sea ice is late, and every week that it melts early, is a week less of hunting for a bear that only eats for a portion of the year. Without sea ice there can be no polar bears. So it is that the bears come to Churchill, to get on the ice quickly and make the most of what is an increasingly short season of replenishment.


But Churchill is also a town, with people and dogs and cars, a school and an ice rink and shops selling tiny polar bears in all sorts of forms. It is a place where people go to work, eat donuts and put out their rubbish. It’s a place where people live – a tiny corner of something-we-might-recognise in an otherwise astonishing amount of wildness, and sometimes, for a bear who hasn’t eaten in months and has walked hundreds of kilometres to find a bay that is still free of ice, it can smell delicious.


For this reason, the people of Churchill built a Polar Bear Holding Facility, referred to, fondly, as the polar bear jail. This facility, for bears who stray too close to town, is a very famous and important part of Churchill. Bears are held here, without food (so they do not come to associate the facility itself with a free meal) until such a time as they can be airlifted out – extraordinarily, dangling from the bottom of a helicopter – either on to the sea ice or, if it has yet to form, a good distance from the town.


These bears often make it into documentaries, papers and books about conservation and human interactions with polar bears. The system protects humans from bears and bears from humans – whereas before ‘problem’ bears that kept returning to the town in search of an easy meal would have been shot, now, they are controlled and released.


As a good proportion of the bears who seek food in the town are adolescents, this system also allows them to grow into adult bears. These tend to steer clear anyway, perhaps because they have improved as hunters and struggle less to feed themselves adequately over the winter, or perhaps simply because they have come to learn that going into town isn’t worth the trouble.


This summer, the polar bear jail became not just locally important to daily lives shared with polar bears, but also undeniably beautiful, and a mouth-piece for change. The Winnipeg-based artist Kal Barteski painted a huge mural of a polar bear across one side of the building, the contours of the roof perfectly shaping the line of the bear’s back. It is just one of 18 murals painted in Churchill this year in conjunction with Pangeaseed, an international not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to draw attention to the need to protect the world’s oceans through art.


Their Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans project sees a global population of artists paint murals to educate the public about the dangers our seas, and the ecosystems which depend on them, face with respect to pollution, overfishing, climate change and other issues. At the time of writing, almost 300 murals have been painted in 12 countries across the globe. The topics the Sea Walls project seeks to address are complex and changing, difficult to explain and understand, and so by translating these issues into artistic works for local and international audiences, Pangeaseed aims to show people the issues that our planet faces everyday, through the medium of something beautiful.


The murals around Churchill have beautified a town which, though fiercely welcoming, was not winning any prizes for its looks. At a local level, they provide inspiration on a daily basis for the people who walk past them and they leave a lasting impact on the tourists who just came to the town to see bears and yet cannot help but to go away with a greater understanding of the severity of a warming world. On an international scale, it’s difficult to imagine the impacts of a world without polar bears – out of sight so often is out of mind – and yet it would be immeasurably poorer.


These mammals are a circumpolar species, touching the lives of people all around the world and we still have so much more to learn about them, their bodies, their behaviour, and the way they interact with and are understood by people across the globe. Truly, to lose polar bears would be to lose a breath-taking creature, but also myriad human understandings. So enter artivism – in a world where the facts of global warming are infinitely well known, let us hope that the beauty of what could be lost is, in the end, its salvation.

When she was small, Henrietta Hammant wanted to be an explorer. Int he end she became an anthropologist, which she enjoys because it’s basically the same except she gets to listen to more stories. Some of her favourite things to do include watching polar bears, swimming in cold places, and asking people lots of questions.


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