With a passion for polar bears and Arctic conservation, Yellowknife local Alysa McCall is on a mission to protect these majestic animals and the sea ice they call home for future generations. She has been studying Canadian polar bears for nearly nine years and focuses on the Hudson Bay polar bear population and their natural habitat in northern Canada. In 2019, McCall’s work supporting research, science education and empowering students to take action on climate change received recognition in a global sustainability competition by Contiki, a millennial travel company, naming her as one of its 35 Under 35 Changemakers.
This global award highlights 35 young individuals from around the world creating positive change in the areas of people, the planet and wildlife, aligned with the Contiki Cares ethos of making travel matter, powered by the TreadRight Foundation. McCall was the only nominee from Yellowknife and northern Canada, which goes to show how impactful her local work is on a global scale.
Originally from Kamloops, British Columbia, McCall completed her B.Sc. (Hon.) in Animal Biology from Thompson Rivers University and furthered her research by obtaining an M.Sc. in Ecology from the University of Alberta. From there, she’s turned her passion into a career, and is currently the director of conservation outreach and a staff scientist at Polar Bears International (PBI), the world’s leading resource for information on polar bears and their Arctic habitat. Her job is multifaceted, ranging from data analysis to providing conservation education, to fieldwork, which brings her into direct contact with these intriguing animals.
No stranger to Northern Canada, she’s based out of Yellowknife, though spends every fall and part of every summer in Churchill, Manitoba, otherwise known as the polar bear capital of the world. She’s also spent multiple fall and spring seasons between Churchill and the Tuktoyaktuk Hamlet of the Northwest Territories and has been heavily involved in the collaring and tracking of Western Hudson Bay polar bears, the primary subject of her research.
The polar bears’ preferred habitat is sea ice, which they rely on for survival as they need it for hunting their main source of food: seals. Seal blubber is high in fat and is necessary for polar bears’ long-term survival, as it’s needed for them to sustain energy for breeding and hunting, which often requires walking and/or swimming — there’s not much else that compares to the calorically-dense food. They also rely on sea ice for travelling, and as it’s rapidly melting at an estimated rate of 12.8 per cent per decade, according to Polar Bears International, the polar bears are forced to walk and swim further distances to find food.
Conservation and Education Efforts
As one of the few people in the world who comes face to face with these creatures on a regular basis, McCall’s passion extends beyond researching the fascinating bears of the North, into sharing her expertise and educating the wider public on tangible ways they can make a difference in conservation efforts for both polar bears and their natural habitats. Each fall, during the gathering of the polar bears in Churchill, McCall runs Polar Bear International’s ‘Tundra Connections’ program with weekly live — and free — broadcasts, including webcasts and live chats from the tundra. Featuring various leading scientists and educators as special guest panelists, each week highlights a different theme, ranging from polar bears to Arctic wildlife and Arctic communities to sea ice.
These weekly broadcasts offer viewers exclusive access to life in the Great White North, with opportunities to meet experts, see polar bears in the wild and partake in a live Q&A for insights into the expertise of the panelists. The program is geared towards a general audience, though special broadcasts are planned for educating elementary school students, businesses or university students.
To further research and conservation efforts in the polar bear capital of the world, PBI has announced the opening of a polar bear centre on the main street of Churchill. PBI staff spend every fall there, as McCall has over the last several years, and the new space will serve dual purposes as a headquarters to the PBI team with lodging and workspace, but also as a resource for the general public. The PBI house will provide the opportunity to connect the Churchill community and guests to visiting experts and allow them to learn more about the important research being conducted.
According to McCall, the best way to help these creatures is to reduce energy consumption, reduce waste and act sustainably to lessen environmental impacts contributing to climate change. The sea ice is disappearing at an alarming rate as a result of human actions which have led to warming temperatures in the Arctic, which could eventually have catastrophic outcomes for our furry friends in the North. Starting at home, one of the simplest ways to cut energy consumption is choosing to commute more sustainably, opting for public transportation or biking to work. Reducing waste is also as simple as opting for reusable products and materials and avoiding unnecessary single-use plastics.
McCall continues to share her message and emphasizes it’s not too late to make a difference, but the only way to reverse climate change and sea ice loss is to take individual action and engage the global community to work together to preserve the world as we know it, the Arctic sea ice and the precious polar bears who call it home.