Citizen Science

Join the Polar Bear Paparazzi

December 23, 2014

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Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in Churchill Manitoba. Photo © Cassandra Debets/PBI.

What Is The Polar Bears International Citizen Science Project?

Come fall, the streets of Churchill, Manitoba are somewhat like Hollywood: they’re filled with paparazzi.

But unlike the Hollywood stalkers, the camera toters in Churchill aren’t seeking Jennifer Lawrence or Brangelina. They’re looking for stars of the animal world: polar bears.

There’s one more big difference: the tourists here can actually perform a valuable service for citizen science.

If you’re planning a polar bear trip of your own in the coming year, here’s how you can help.

The Arctic creates difficult study conditions for scientists.

Though science shows that southern polar bears are already being impacted by loss of sea ice and impacts on northern populations are likely, more data about how and how quickly climate change is affecting polar bears would improve conservation planning and increase public buy-in.

The scientists at Polar Bears International (PBI) are developing a method that will make it easier to gather data even under harsh conditions – and they’re enlisting the help of polar bear tourists.

Help them fill that data gap by joining the Polar Bears International Citizen Science Project and reward yourself with an up-close look at bears in Churchill, Manitoba – a dream trip for any wildlife enthusiast.

Guests watch polar bears from the Tundra Buggy. Photo Courtesy of Cassandra Debets.
Cassandra Debets and guests watch polar bears from the Tundra Buggy. Photo © John Gunter of Frontiers North Adventures.

Why Is The PBI Citizen Science Project Important?

By now, just about everyone has heard that polar bears are suffering from changes to the amount and duration of ice cover in the Arctic.

More data on polar bear abundance, health, locations, and adaptations to climate change will help scientists to make better recommendations for protecting polar bears. 

“We are developing a new research methodology that can be applied in other areas of the Arctic, where we know little about polar bears – specifically remote parts of Russia, Greenland, and the Canadian High Arctic,” says Cassandra Debets, a graduate student working with PBI. “Photographs can be relatively easy to collect compared to other field techniques and could offer a way to collect data in areas where field studies are logistically and/or financially challenging.”

So the photographs you take on your polar bear trip can also provide critical scientific data.

Scientists are able to estimate the body size and/or the condition of the bear in the picture when it’s taken with their special camera and laser rangefinder.

While differences from one year to the next may not seem significant, by gathering several years worth of photo data in this way, scientists can find trends in the overall health of area polar bears.

Polar bear tourism is at the top of the “bucket list” for many wildlife enthusiasts. Seeing a polar bear in the wild can be a life-changing experience.

“When I was 15 I was given the opportunity to spend a week in Churchill, Manitoba. I spent 6 days on the Tundra Buggy ® and was able to witness the species in the wild,” Debets recalls. “The first bear(s) I encountered was a mom with her two cubs-of-year (COYs). Seeing the family group made me realize that I wanted this to be sight that future generations could witness and it is why I have focused my studies on Arctic wildlife conservation.”

Out in the Tundra Buggies, visitors see many things that they will remember for a lifetime.

“This past season, at the beginning of the season there was a mother with two 10 month old cubs that were both very curious of the Tundra Buggies,” says Debets. “I, along with several guests on the tundra were able to witness the mother nurse. I find these moments very special. We also see lots of other animals as well, like Arctic fox, Ptarmigan, Gyrfalcon, Snowy owls to name a few.”

A polar bear nurses her cubs. Photo © Cassandra Debets/PBI.
A polar bear nurses her cubs. Photo © Cassandra Debets/PBI.

How Can You Get Involved in the PBI Citizen Science Project?

Visit Churchill and go on a Tundra Buggy tour with Frontiers North Adventures.

On board the Tundra Buggies, look for the PBI graduate students, currently Cassandra Debets and Randy Creaser; they’ll be the ones with the strange looking cameras.

They encourage guests to use their camera equipment, learn more about the science, and help out with the project.

Eventually PBI may accept other photos, but for now they primarily work with photos taken with their equipment because it provides more accurate estimates of polar bear body condition.

Take some time to relax; have fun taking pictures and watching the bears.

“People who don’t visit Churchill can still become amazed by this species, by tuning into‘s live polar bear cams,” Debets notes. “Reducing our carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions is one of the biggest things anyone anywhere can do to help polar bears.”

Start planning now and maybe next year you can join the polar bear paparazzi!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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1 comment

  1. This “citizen science” project is preposterous. Churchill is the best-studied polar bear population in the world; dozens of bears are captured, handled, and measured there every year.

    The idea that ordinary citizens will be accessing areas that are inaccessible to scientists is simply untrue. This is all merely a way for Polar Bears International to promote the buggy rides of their financial partner, Frontiers North.