©"Polar Bear and Tundra Buggy - Churchill, Manitoba" by TravelingOtter is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Location: 58º N 94º W
Churchill, MB, located in northern Manitoba “the polar bear capital of the world” is well-known as a popular tourist destination for viewing polar animals in their natural habitat. The Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears is the most common attraction as they spend a large part of the year on land along the shores of the community of Churchill due to the complete annual ice melt in the region (Dawson et al., 2010, 320) As the polar bears wait for freeze-up, starving, they spread out along the bay, providing easy access from the town for tourists to observe them. As a result of the reduction in sea ice, the polar bear population has also been in decline. Projections of lengthened delays of freeze up raise concerns as to whether Polar bears will become extinct, making them a key symbol of global climate change. The Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) and the Wapusk National Park were both established in the 1990s to protect polar bear habitats and denning areas. Furthermore, Manitoba listed polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of Manitoba” (Dawson et al., 2010, 323).
Annually, an approximate 12,000 tourists pour around $7.2 million into the local economy coming to view Polar Bears. (D’Souza et al. 2021, 6) Ironically, travel and support of such viewing experiences in Churchill contributes to the demise of the polar bears and the polar environment through carbon dioxide emissions. The small town of Churchill with a population of just approximately 1000 people can only be accessed by rail, flight or ship which means that tourists are travelling thousands of kilometres to reach the town’s remote location. A report released in 2008 by UNWTO-UNEP-WMO estimated “that the tourism industry contributes approximately 5% of total global carbon dioxide emissions”. (Dawson et al., 2010, 322) This estimate increased 10% already within a decade by 2018. (D’Souza et al. 2021, 13) The implications and impacts of climate change weighed heavily on the community of Churchill when the train tracks linking Canada’s only Arctic deep water port were wiped out due to heavy flooding. The increase of air travel into the community along with the considerations of financial and social disruptions for the city had a lasting impact: fears of increased food prices, unaffordable gasoline or options for leaving Churchill as living costs increased substantially due the unavailability of rail travel while wages remained the same. (MacIntosh, 2018) Nonetheless, the vision to re-invent the port and rail connection has become a key priority as the warming North means “longer shipping seasons” and the potential for shipping oil. Along with Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, the President of the Arctic Gateway Group celebrated the arrival of the first train to run again to Churchill since the floods claiming: “We need to recognize as a country that robust demand in foreign markets will make us need to use all our ports. We think a natural resource corridor for Western Canada is important.”- Arctic Gateway Group President Murad Al-Katib (MacIntosh, 2018)
I chose the declining polar bear population and the flooding of the railway from Winnipeg to Churchill, MB as a climate change impact since it is an interesting example of how climate change is affecting the region as a whole in ripple effects: from the impacts on the natural environment to failing infrastructure to the vulnerability of a community relying primarily on polar tourism or natural resource exploitation. I travelled with my son to Churchill 3 years ago on train, went on a tundra buggy tour, kayaked with the belugas and certainly provided my personal contribution to the carbon dioxide emissions in a vulnerable environment. I am unsure at this point how to process what I learnt during the research process of writing this postcard. I certainly wasn’t aware of the breadth of the impacts and feel that scientific data on climate change realities should be shared with the wider population in greater detail.
Dawson, Jackie, et al. “The Carbon Cost of Polar Bear Viewing Tourism in Churchill, Canada.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol. 18, no. 3, 2010, pp. 319–336., https://doi.org/10.1080/09669580903215147.
D’Souza, Jamie, et al. “Last Chance Tourism: A Decade Review of a Case Study on Churchill, Manitoba’s Polar Bear Viewing Industry.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2021, pp. 1–19., https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2021.1910828.
MacIntosh, Cameron. “Churchill Residents Rejoice as Rail Service Gets Back on Track | Cbc News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 1 Nov. 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/churchill-rail-service-returns-november-1.4887333.