Wind, Snow, and Polar Bears

Posted at 10:48 am November 2, 2010 by Megan Owen

Two young males sparring.

Megan is reporting from Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Read her previous post, Returning to the Polar Bears.

There are beautiful, calm, sunny days up here where you start to believe that you might begin to master the art of living in the polar bear’s Arctic home. But then, out of nowhere, the weather moves in. Of course the weather up here has any number of combinations of cold, rain, snow, and wind. And what really keeps you on your toes is that it can turn on a dime, leaving you feeling hopelessly ill-equipped to stand outside, even for a few minutes.

After we left our base camp at the Tundra Buggy Lodge® this morning, we quickly realized that the blue sky of the previous day was not going to be peeking out from behind the thick clouds overhead this morning. How would this weather impact the polar bears in the area? Would mothers and cubs still be out and about? Or would they be hunkering down in the willow shrubs, staying warm and conserving energy?

As we slowly drive along, the wet falling snow that we see outside isn’t really falling: it is passing by our buggy window at a perfectly horizontal trajectory. It is blowing up here! Winds are gusting up to 35 miles per hour and that makes the 30-degree-Fahrenheit (11.1 degrees Celsius) weather feel a heck of a lot colder! Stepping outside to see the bears takes a touch more coaxing in this wind, but seeing their beautiful faces, completely unperturbed by weather, brings us right on out. We have been watching a pair of bears for a few days now. We are not exactly sure “who” they are: our best guess is a pair of 3-year-old male brothers that haven’t yet moved on to their solitary adult lives. But we don’t know for sure. Most bears that you see this time of year out here are hunkering down in the willows, conserving their energy and moving slowly, if at all, from here to there. These two, however, have been sparring for the last few days, pretty much nonstop. They appear to think that they have energy to spare!

Watching these two bears sparring like a pair of well-fed Sumo wrestlers, it is easy to think that all is well for the polar bear. But these two young bears have very little experience, and they are certainly not of reproductive age. Polar bear reproduction requires energy—stored energy, and lots of it.

It is reassuring to see the snow begin to blanket the tundra. Not only does it look beautiful, but it also leaves us optimistic that the Hudson Bay will begin its annual freeze, sooner than later. Once the Bay freezes, the bears that are congregating here will all head out onto the sea ice in search of their first meal in months. Climate change has pushed the sea ice melt in the summer earlier and earlier, which effectively shortens the hunting season for polar bears and extends the length of their summer fast. This shortening of the hunting season is really hard on the bears and can threaten the ability of some female bears to reproduce successfully.

So, although it is nice to be outside on a calm, temperate day here, it feels even better to have the fall weather move in, hopefully bringing with it winds from the north and cooler temperatures. The sea ice is the polar bear’s home, and we know that they are anxious and ready to get back out there.

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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23 Responses to “Wind, Snow, and Polar Bears”

  1. Shirley Ann says:

    I hope the weather is ideal this year for the polar bears – a lot of ice coverage so they can hunt.

    Good hunting you majestic creatures.

  2. Marie says:

    How long can a polar bear fast before it gets dangerous for their health?

  3. GLORIA SAPP says:

    I watch the polar bears everyday and keep wondering why Kalluk seems to be tearing off Tatqiq’s right ear ?? Isn’t this harmful to Tatqiq ??
    Thank you for your attention and response, I really appreciate it.

    Moderator’s note: Polar bear play looks rough to us, but it’s normal for them. Thank you for your concern; we hope you continue to enjoy watching our bears!

  4. Megan Owen says:

    #2 Marie

    In the wild, most polar bears will fast for several months during the late summer and fall. In most subpopulations that have been studied, pregnant females typically fast for 4 to 6 months, but pregnant females on the Hudson Bay may go for about 8 months without eating. In the end, it is the condition of the female before she begins her fast that determines how long she can go without eating. This means that having a long and bountiful hunting season (in the spring and early summer) is extra important to polar bears.

  5. Diane in Victoria says:

    Wish I were there.

  6. GLORIA SAPP says:

    Dear Moderator,
    Thank you so much for your quick response to my Polar Bear question.
    I tend to get very emotionally involved in their welfare, and so when I notice
    something that doesn’t seem normal, or could be hazardous, I try to find answers
    or get help.
    I just seems that everyday Kalluk is dragging Tatqiq around by her ear. I’ve been
    concerned, also, that he would hold her under the water too long and drown her….though
    I wouldn’t expect that of siblings.
    With your information I can rest peacefully now.
    Thank you, too, for all that you do for the Polar Bears in their quest for survival.
    If any group could do more to make an impact on their conservation, I know that
    it would be the San Diego Zoo staff.
    Keep taking the excellent care of these bears that you watch over there at the zoo
    and we can rest assured that at least 3 of the Polar Bears will flourish.
    I appreciate and admire all that you do for ALL the animals at the zoo and elsewhere,
    and I know that you have to put in a lot of hard work and long hours to do so.
    So if it may seem sometimes that you have a “thankless” job, please know that all your efforts are well-noticed and appreciated so much. As a matter of fact, I can’t help notice everyday(via the PolarCam),
    just how clear their water is, that their carrots are scrubbed clean, and they are just about the most
    relaxed and happy bears this side of the Artic !!
    Sincerely with gratitude to all,
    Gloria Sapp

    Moderator’s note: Thank you for your kind words!

  7. Tiny says:

    Such beautiful animals! I have been wondering if maybe the warm temperatures affect the females ability to have cubs? Anyway, I am posting this new commercial from Nissan that features the polar bear who begins a journey after seeing how ravaged her Arctic home is becoming. I was so touched by it, I had to go find the Kleenex 🙂 It is truly special and heart touching, a tiny piece of “film as art”. I hope they win an award for it and I am quite sure it will help bring much needed attention to these beautiful animals and the plight of their homelands.

    Thank you for the wonderful story Megan. Stay safe in that crazy weather!

  8. Diane in Victoria says:

    That’s Agie. She’s a privately owned bear who lives outside Vancouver. Another lovely bear. And, yes, it is a touching message.

  9. Debi says:

    One of the bears has found a new game! Take blue ball and wedge between two ledges near the floating log. Put face mostly into water. Smack ball with paws gently. It makes lots of splashies that get up your nose and into your face! Occasionally stop, hug ball, rub on face and start over again! Fun in the sun!

  10. Debi says:

    @Gloria~I have seen Kalluk do the exact same thing to Tatqiq and it really freaked me out, until I noticed when he stopped for a while, she swam back up to him and encouraged him to drag and dunk her more! I though it very aggressive, but that is how they play and from what I understand from previous blogs by JoAnn and keepers is that Tatqiq knows how to hold her own with her brother and is often the boss of how games should be played, including luring him into the shallow waters to beat him up better! She may be our princess, but I think she is a tomboy!

  11. Diane in Victoria says:


  12. NancyB San Diego says:

    Just wondering how Chinook is doing. Any update?

  13. Debi says:

    #11 Diane~Yes! They are both having a game of tag and believe me, Tatqiq is the instigator right now! She keeps tagging Kalluk with a nip and flips off and away as quick as she can. If he doesn’t follow she meets him back at stone table and nips him again until he chases her!

  14. Mona says:

    yes please any info on Chinook would be greatly appreciated!!!

  15. Susan(UK) says:

    I too would love to hear the latest on Chinook. Also, is that Tatqiq lounging on the rock, legs in the air, looking very relaxed.

  16. Grace says:

    Looking at the Polar Cam right now, I am wondering which sleepy bear is lying on the grass near the water now. I think it is Kalluk since I see a gray patch on the back, but it also looks like Chinook. Has Chinook been out today at all?

  17. Dee says:

    I just got an email that a Federal Judge has ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has to justify why they are only listing Polar Bears as merely”threatened” and not “endangered.” This is a very important victory to get these bears protected under the Endangered Species Act.

  18. Chari Mercier says:

    Hi! Been watching the polar bear cam off and on. Sometimes it’s on Kalluk and Tatqiq, and sometimes it’s just on Chinook. One day I was on the cam and saw Kalluk and Tatqiq laying down just relaxing. One of the bears was on the dirt pile and this bear was just covered in brown dirt to the point that he/she looked like the North American Brown Bear instead of a Polar Bear! The other bear was as white and clean as a polar bear should be! That was so funny to watch!

    I’m also hoping that the Arctic ice will come back strong and thick so that the wild polar bears can hunt for their usual food, gain weight, get fat, especially the females who maybe pregnant. That will be a very nice winter for them! They need all of the help that we and nature can give them right now! Keep up with your research and conservation efforts, you all!

    Looks like SDZ is not the only zoo waiting for a baby polar bear from Chinook. Memphis Zoo has announced on Oct. 6 that their female polar bear, 8 year old Haley, maybe expecting a baby polar bear cub soon. She is currently on pregnancy watch by the keepers and vets there. Nothing new from MZ yet about Haley, but they are excited and keeping their fingers crossed. I know that SDZ’s polar bear keepers and vets are doing the same thing for Chinook! We’re waiting on both polar bear ladies to come thru with cubs!! MZ also has changed their website again for the 3rd time in about 3 years. It looks very nice and pretty easy to navigate. Both the polar bear and panda cams are working on the new MZ website. Can’t find keeper blogs, tho.

    Well, gonna go and check the AZ pandacam to watch Lun Lun take care of her newest baby panda! Will check back later on!

    Chari Mercier 🙂

    St. Pete, FL

  19. Grace says:

    I always get a kick out of seeing these bears sleeping or lying on their backs with the arms UP! It appears unnaturally comfortable, and yet a fun sight!

  20. Debi says:

    How adorable! Kalluk and Tatqiq are sharing a bed, with Kalluk dark as can be, covered in dirt and seems to have thrown quite a bit out of the bed in the process! Tatqiq has her own blotches, but overall is very white. Did they ever do this before Chinook taught them or is this all new behaviour thanks to her own creative technique?!!

  21. Mary Anne form NY says:

    (Sigh) not once did I see the bears out today every time I turned on the cam is was focused in the same spot .. even the sand was still scored with the rake marks … I hope everything is ok. And I just missed it every time I came on. OR>>>>> maybe too much going on with Chinook giving birth?????? WOULD’NT THAT BE NICE!

  22. Terry in NY says:

    Please, please give us an update on how Chinook is doing. Even if it is not much of anything just so we know she is ok.

    Moderator’s note: We’ll have a blog post soon; Chinook is well.

  23. Chari Mercier says:

    Just got on the polar bear cam, and both Tatqiq and Kalluk are on that dirt pile just napping away! They will both look like half and halfs after they wake up–half of them brown, half of them white! Right now, They are just taking it easy!
    What’s the latest about Chinook? Has she started showing any signs of pregnancy and/or maternal behavior yet? Chinook is really putting us on pins and needles waiting on her to let us know something!
    Was on Facebook and Zooborns, and found out that SDZ/WAP had 2 of the most adorable Sumatran tigers that were born about a month ago. The pics of them are sooooo cute and adorable! Congrats, you all!
    Chari Mercier 🙂
    St. Pete, FL

    Moderator’s note: Thanks, Chari! We have video of the new tiger cubs and will have a blog post about them very soon.