My time up north is with the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) located 23 kilometres east of the town of Churchill. Housed in the greenest of buildings surrounded by white, this non-profit research and educational facility opens its doors to researchers and scientists. It also welcomes visitors to observe and to learn about polar bears and other wildlife, the ecosystems, the aurora borealis, climate change, and the history and the culture of the area, among other topics.
The CNSC is an “all hands on deck” kind of operation. We later learn that LeeAnn, who greets us at the airport, is actually Dr. LeeAnn Fishback, a freshwater geochemist and CNSC’s scientific coordinator. Amy, who loads our lunches onto the buggy, is actually a PhD candidate looking at the interactions between humans and bears. All guests take a turn at the dish pit, washing up after the hearty, home-cooked meals, prepared by the onsite cook. The baked goods that appear on the counter of the cafeteria every day are to die for. From moist gingerbread loaf, to silky mini pumpkin pies, the desserts are almost enough to keep me warm. Almost. The all you can drink coffee/tea/hot chocolate definitely helps too.
Built in 2011 and just months away from its final LEED Gold certification, the centre sits next to its former home, the Churchill Research Rocket Range. Over 3,000 rockets were launched between 1957 and 1988 for atmospheric research. Today, the CNSC maintains the rocket range and launch projects as well as 15 other current research projects.
The building in itself is a northern attraction, with its unique features designed to capture natural light, prevent snow drifts and reduce water consumption. The only LEED category where the centre fell short was the use of local building supplies, with the huge curved posts and beams coming from BC.
“Snow and scrap metal aren’t really great building materials,” quips Grant, the centre’s executive director, as he takes us on a tour of the building’s thoughtful design elements and eco-friendly mechanical systems. One of those is the fire prevention system, which was designed with the centre’s unique location in mind. “Unlike anywhere else in the world, if the fire alarm goes off, do not leave the building,” he warns us with a slight grin, alluding to the dangers of both arctic weather and arctic bears.
The dorm-style accommodations and shared bathrooms, in addition to the lounge spaces, library, workout room and aurora dome for northern light viewing, all add to the centre’s welcoming vibe.
Having heard from Grant, LeeAnn, our tour instructor Rupert and biologist Dillon, I have a much better understanding of the Churchill environment and one of the major hot topics in the north: climate change. LeeAnn shows us how everything from snowpack, to tree growth, bird migration and tourism is being affected by warming temperatures. And it is Rupert who really illustrates how climate change is threatening the polar bear, as mothers and new cubs have less and less time on the ice to feed on seals after emerging from their birthing dens in early spring.
In addition to learning about the science and research happening at the CNCS, guests here are actively helping to collect data to identify bears. Tranquilizing and tagging bears is expensive and invasive. The Whiskerprint Project attempts to identify bears using the same techniques used to identify lions in Africa. Reserachers are collecting photos of bears and using a computer program to analyze their whiskerprints. There are currently 116 bears in the Whiskerprint library, and the end goal is to get anyone who comes to Churchill to submit their usable photos to the project at polarbearlibrary.org. This is a really cool way to do something with some of those 574 photos taken during a day out viewing polar bears.