BEAR WEEK: Como Zoo keeper travels to tundra to study polar bears

One of the best places in the world to get an up-close look at polar bears is a short 13 hour flight straight north of the Twin Cities to Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capitol of the world. And once you’re there, your feet never touch the ground.

It’s a trip a zookeeker at Como Zoo has taken several times, not just to see the animals, but to learn how the changing climate and shrinking ice are affecting their very existence.

Julie Yarrington worked as day-trip tour guide for two weeks at a time.

“The tundra buggy looks a bit like a school bus jacked up on a monster truck bed? And that's exactly what it was,” Yarrington explained. “Frontiers North was the first company to design the tundra buggy, and it was originally a school bus on big tires.”

The trips were not vacations, but a chance to see polar bears in their natural habitat.

“We're just out in the tundra watching the bears, just their normal behavior,” she said. “These bears are here just waiting for the ice to form.”

The habitat has changed so much, it's threatening the bears’ very existence.”

“I think just their unique ability to survive where they live - it's such a harsh environment and they're designed so well for that,” Yarrington said. “They can smell immensely well.”

At the Como Zoo, Julie works with two 21-year-old male polar bears, and her work with them spawned an even deeper fascination.

“Half the time it's dark,” she said of the polar bears’ natural habitat. “You’ve got to find your way, you got to find your mates, you got to find your food… I just think it's fascinating they can survive up there.”

Yarrington’s two-week trips to the tundra aren't just to educate others, but to learn from researchers and bring that knowledge back home.

For bears like these to thrive in place other than captivity, researchers are trying to figure out what can be done, and the answers aren't so simple.

“We obviously see skinny bears when we're up there, and that's a concern the polar bear population has specifically in Churchill,” she said.

The winter ice sheet first forms on the lower shore of the Hudson Bay. So, each fall, polar bears flock to it, waiting to get out on the ice where they'll spend the winter hunting.

If the female does not have enough body weight to support pregnancy, her body will not become pregnant.

As the ice sheet continues to shrink, lack of food leads to female polar bears having fewer cubs, or none at all.

“They need that ice to hunt, they need it to breath, they need it to mate,” Yarrington said. “So until we get that ice back and curb that carbon foot-printing and get our global temperatures back down, the population's in threat.”