Lifetime award winner reshaped conversation on polar bear research

Lifetime award winner reshaped conversation on polar bear research
Dr. Ian Stirling has been recognized for decades of research on polar bears and the Arctic with a lifetime achievement award.Photo: Ian Stirling.

Flying 15,000 kilometres from a temperate coastal climate to the most unforgiving place on the planet, 20-something graduate student Ian Stirling wanted it bad.

It was almost 50 years ago that the man who would become Dr. Stirling, a world-renowned authority on polar bears and polar ice-breeding seals, the first researcher to connect the decline of a polar bear subpopulation and climate warming, could not find a job in his field in Canada. So with an M.Sc from the University of British Columbia, off he went to the bottom of the earth, a virtual desert where temperatures colder than -91°C have been recorded, to study the population ecology of Weddell seals. In doing so he earned his PhD from the Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1969, before returning to Canada in 1970, when he took the helm of the Polar Bear Project at Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, a position he held until 2007 (he remains involved as an emeritus scientist).

It all came full circle when on Dec. 9 Stirling received the $50,000 Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation at the ArcticNet annual scientific meeting in Vancouver.

The conference brought together 650 leading Arctic researchers, students, indigenous leaders, policy makers, northern community members and private sector representatives to address the numerous environmental, social, economical and political challenges and opportunities that are emerging from climate change and modernization in the Arctic.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” Stirling told the Journal last week. “Most scientists don’t ever think of these things (but) I’ve always felt talking to the public and the media, or schools, was really important. I usually try and steer the conversation away from myself to the polar bears, or the seals, or the walruses or whatever it is (the reporter) happened to be interested in because those are the things that are important in the big picture.”

In layman’s terms, Stirling has been studying the population dynamics and ecology of polar bears in relation to seals, which they eat to live, and changes in sea ice, which they need to be able to hunt.

Stirling estimates that about half of the polar bear population around the circumpolar Arctic could disappear by 2050 to 2060, if climate warming continues as is currently projected, with the last survivors expected to be in the northern Canadian Arctic islands and Greenland. Of the 19 different polar bear subpopulations around the world, all but six are in Canada.

“When climate starts to warm and ice starts to melt, and starts affecting the reproduction and survival of seals, and access by bears to the seals in particular, you start seeing some very large changes,” Stirling explained. “(In the NWT) you’re right on the edge of where the effects are getting really significant. Climate change is a huge global problem, of course, but the rate of climate change is double in the Arctic what it is everywhere else. It has effects on the way of life of all the people that live there in absolutely profound ways. Look at a town like Tuk. Every time there’s a major storm they lose 10 or 20 feet of the shorefront.

hey’ve actually moved a couple of villages in Alaska that were on the lost-shore islands and they’re going to be moving some more, at a cost of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s not cheap.”

A legacy of learning

Stirling, who lives with his wife and children in Edmonton, is ranked by his colleagues as one of the best researchers in the field of marine mammal ecology, according to the Weston Foundation. Over the last 50 years, he has authored or co-authored more than 300 scientific articles and published five non-technical books for the general public.

“Dr. Stirling’s rigorous research has led to findings that are significant to the preservation and management of Arctic marine mammals,” Geordie Dalglish, director of the Weston Foundation and chair of its Northern Committee, said. “We are deeply honoured to award him in recognition of his significant contribution to our understanding of Canada’s North.”

His most cherished legacy is the generations of scientists he helped train as an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta from 1979 on. The job was unpaid but he accepted it so he could involve young Canadian students and give them the opportunity to do Arctic research in the field.

“As an educator and a mentor, Dr. Stirling has inspired early-career scholars, from undergraduate and graduate students to postdoctoral fellows, to pursue and persevere in northern research,” Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies president Monique Bernier said. “Many of his former students now live in the North where they occupy positions as government biologists or managers. He is highly respected in the North due to his consideration of indigenous knowledge, his support for co-management with northern communities and his role as an advocate for the Arctic.”

Stirling credits the Weston Foundation for taking a “big step forward” in 2007 and funding a range of new scholarships for students, research projects and conferences like the one in Vancouver where he received his award.

“Maybe one of the most important of any legacies I might be leaving is the number of students I’ve trained,” he said. “It would be hard to find anything that was much more rewarding than that. It’s sort of like watching your own kids be successful.”

For Stirling, now 74, fresh eyes and hungry minds are always welcome on the frontier.

“If a good student isn’t having a new idea every other day or so, then they’re not thinking about stuff enough,” Stirling said. “One of the things I always found with having good students around is that I was never short of things to think about. It was really exciting.”

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