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The new Journey To Churchill exhibit at the Zoo.

Of sea ice and polar bears

July 7, 2014 — 

During the past two years, researchers with the Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS) in the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Earth, Environment, and Resources have been assisting with the Journey to Churchill project at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

Faculty have been involved in preparation of the Polar Bear pools, growing sea ice in the pools and helping the Zoo simulate polynya in the pools (pockets of open water). CEOS researchers have also advised the Zoo on aspects of climate change, sea ice and marine ecosystems in the interactive and static displays at the exhibit. The Journey to Churchill exhibit features a huge presentation wall, featuring images of the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen and a number of U of M researchers. Also, a poster display describes current and ongoing research in Arctic studies at the University of Manitoba.

The new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) at Assiniboine Park Zoo is a state-of-the-art building structured with four distinct areas for bears, keepers, researchers and visitors.


University of Manitoba researchers are collaborating with the IPBCC on studies of how changes in sea ice affect polar bear habitat and in the development of new and innovative remote sensing technologies in how to detect, and census, polar bears.

With experience in creating artificial sea ice ponds at the Fort Garry Campus, CEOS researchers were able to provide technical support in the design of the Journey to Churchill ponds. Furthermore, CEOS has structured many collaborative research projects using the ponds, sea ice and the animals that will inhabit the exhibit. Research projects will include sea ice studies, chemical and gas exchange, energetics associated with the animals themselves and analysis of their use of sea ice and snow as an essential habitat.

David Barber is Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba. As an internationally renowned climate change and Arctic research scientist, he is excited for the opening of the Journey to Churchill exhibit. He explains:

“For several years now we have been seeing the first and strongest evidence of a warming global climate. Because sea ice integrates both changes in the ocean and the atmosphere, a very small change to our global climate can make a very large change in sea ice concentration and extent. We have been losing an average of about 70,000 km2 of sea ice each year for the past 30 years. Climate change is arguably one of the singular most significant challenges facing the human species today.”

Regarding the importance of the Journey to Churchill exhibit as an educational and research tool, Barber says: “It’s a model of the real Churchill, undoubtedly one of the best places on the planet to learn about the Arctic and the rapid climate, ecosystem and globalization changes currently underway.”

CEOS researchers will be conducting studies at the Journey to Churchill exhibit using remote sensing instruments, ocean, sea ice and atmospheric sensors that can be tested here in a situation which simulates the Arctic. Other studies will include research on energy and mass exchange studies (climate research) and sea ice as a habitat for marine mammals, particularly polar bears and ringed seal habitats. This partnership has benefited CEOS as well in that it has used the research programs at the JTC in support of larger projects which have been proposed to the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Barber further adds: “At CEOS we currently have 115 people working on Arctic system science questions. All of the science they conduct is relative in some way to the concepts which will be presented to the public through the Journey to Churchill exhibit. Not all of these scientists will use the facility directly, but the work they are doing in the Arctic will inform the educational displays at the exhibit through ongoing partnership between CEOS and Assiniboine Park Zoo.”

–Chris Rutkowski

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Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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