Enjoying Polar Bears, Northern Lights, and Nature During the Pandemic

Polar Bears International researchers prepare for a new season.

mother polar bear with cubs
Polar bear cubs snuggle with their mother.

Dmytro Cherkasov / polarbearsinternational.org

When polar bears make headlines these days, it’s not usually good news. Melting Arctic ice threatens the iconic animal’s survival and their numbers are shrinking. They’re listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

These popular polar predators are some of the most recognizable animals in the world. While their population may be decreasing, interest in the giant creatures is always growing, according to the researchers at Polar Bears International, an organization dedicated to polar bear conservation.

Throughout the pandemic, the group has seen a lot of interest in its Northern Lights Cam in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. And members are getting excited because this is the time of year when polar bear mothers emerge from their dens with their cubs.

In honor of International Polar Bear Day (Feb. 27), we talked to Krista Wright, Polar Bears International’s executive director, about the cam, the cubs, and the future of these much-loved bears.

Treehugger: What was the purpose of the Northern Lights Cam? Was it to see the lights or also to offer glimpses of animals and other nature?

Krista Wright: At Polar Bears International, our focus is on polar bears but we also work to inspire people to fall in love with, and care about, the Arctic. We’ve found that people who care about an ecosystem work to preserve it. The northern lights are incredibly beautiful--just like polar bears, they are a symbol of the Arctic. We launched the Northern Lights Cam in partnership with explore.org to share this wonder with the world and help viewers connect with this remarkable part of our planet.

Northern Lights Cam
Northern lights in the night sky above Churchill, Canada. Madison Stevens / polarbearsinternational.org

 What have been some of the highlights from the cam?

Over the last few weeks the Northern Lights Cam has captured some incredible aurora displays painting the night sky above Churchill. One of my favorite things about the cam, is that because of the special camera used, you actually see the movement and colors in real time, unlike many other timelapses you might see. 

Earlier this year the cam also captured a large meteor pass across the field of view. At other times of year the northern lights cam has been visited by a beautiful white phase gyrfalcon in the day time, and often catches some the amazing sunrises and sunsets over the tundra. Our cam is located at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and we’re lucky that Churchill is located near the aurora oval, one of the best places to view the aurora borealis in the world.

How has the pandemic impacted viewership?

The Northern Lights Cam has always been popular, but it really took off during the pandemic. There is something zen-like and calming about watching the lights pulse and dance across the sky. Last year, the cam had 4,336,569 views on the explore.org website and 3,590,481 views on YouTube. It was the 4th most popular cam on explore.org!

polar bear with cubs
Polar bears will start to emerge from their dens in March and April. Simon Gee / polarbearsinternational.org

What is happening with polar bears this time of year?

This is the time of year when polar bear mothers with young cubs are snug in their snow dens. Cubs are born in December and January. At birth, they weigh only about one pound, are blind, and are lightly furred. Polar bear moms and cubs emerge from their dens in March or April depending on where they are in the Arctic, after cubs have grown enough to survive the challenges outside. 

Other polar bears--including adult males and females with older cubs--hunt seals on the sea ice all winter long, guided by the moon, stars, and northern lights. As we watch the Northern Lights Cam, we like to imagine polar bears out hunting on the sea ice, under the northern lights, while moms with young cubs are nestled in their snow dens, hidden from view.

What does this mean for researchers?

For our staff scientists, this is an exciting time of year, as it’s the time of year when they’re preparing for polar bear den research in Svalbard, Norway. The study focuses on the time period when moms and cubs emerge from their dens. Typically at this time of year, our research team would be busy checking gear, testing and fine-tuning equipment and technology, and packing for an expedition in subzero temperatures.

Due to the pandemic restrictions, this research will likely not take place this winter, but we’ve shipped off equipment for local researchers to deploy, just in case -- although many research delays have been disappointing, they are necessary and understandable in these unusual times. 

What is the latest science on polar bear populations and what will happen if climate change continues on the same trajectory?

A recent study led by Dr. Peter Molnar, coauthored by our chief scientist, Dr. Steven Amstrup, and others, shows that we will lose almost all polar bears except a few High Arctic populations by the end of the century if we continue on our current emissions path.

The good news is that if we finally get our act together and meet or exceed the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, we could preserve polar bears over much of their range indefinitely. With the U.S. rejoining the Paris Agreement and showing leadership on climate change, we feel a real sense of hope -- for polar bears and for all of us.

View Article Sources
  1. Wiig, Ø., et al. "Polar Bear." IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2015, doi:10.2305/iucn.uk.2015-4.rlts.t22823a14871490.en

  2. Molnár, Péter K., et al. "Fasting Season Length Sets Temporal Limits for Global Polar Bear Persistence." Nature Climate Change, vol. 10, no. 8, 2020, pp. 732-738, doi:10.1038/s41558-020-0818-9