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Kelvin launches NorthSTAR website

When Kelvin High School students take the polar bear plunge, they dive deep into the world of the big white bear.

In partnership with Dr. Jane Waterman from the University of Manitoba, the NorthSTAR program sees Kelvin students conducting research on the behaviour and health of polar bears during fall field trips to Churchill, Man.

NorthSTAR or the Northern Student-Led Arctic Research also features participants from Elmwood High School, as well as Nelson McIntyre Collegiate in Louis Riel School Division.

With 2020’s journey to Churchill cancelled due to COVID-19, students in the NorthSTAR program have created a website, www.northstarscience.net, to communicate their field experiences and findings, as well as their data collection and research techniques. 

“The remaining people on the team right now are Grade 12 students and when we graduate there won’t be any older students to teach new people the ropes of being in the NorthSTAR club,” said Voke Ewhrudjakpor, a Grade 12 student at Kelvin.

“We started the website partly as a way to have those materials available to any new members of the club. We have a whole bunch of videos on the website on how to whisker print and calibrate the cameras, stuff we learned in Grade 9 and 10. We just want to pass that knowledge on so students know what they’re doing next school year.”

NorthSTAR program participants use Waterman’s whisker printing method to non-invasively identify and distinguish polar bears. First, while up north, the students take photos of the bears from a tundra buggy. The photos are then put into Waterman’s whisker print program, which acts as polar bear facial recognition software.

“The whisker print program is really amazing,” said Martina Barclay, a Grade 12 student. “It’s actually quite easy for us to do, as long as we can get the right photo. The program compares bears and it will tell you how similar a bear is to another one.”

“The whisker print program can serve as a supplement too,” added Alayna Smith, a Grade 12 student.

“A bear can have scars that can be used to identify them and you can tell if it’s younger or older. Sometimes it’s kind of close though, so by combining scars, the age of the bear and the whisker print program, you can get a pretty good idea of what bear it is.”

Ewhrudjakpor, Barclay and Smith all said they were initially interested in the NorthSTAR program as it was an extracurricular opportunity for science-based learning. Of course, a trip to Churchill to see polar bears was also a big selling point.

“I remember going to talk to Miss Temesvari, one of our teacher supervisors, to ask her for more information and she said ‘Just so you know, this isn’t just a trip. It’s actual research and actual work’,” Barclay said.

“But, that’s exactly what I wanted. I’ve always been really interested in polar bears and I always wanted to go to Churchill, so it was a really amazing experience. It’s not like you’re going there just to see the sights. We learned so much and it gives you a new perspective on polar bears when you’re doing all this research.”

Unfortunately, the data that the NorthSTAR program has collected shows a pattern of decrease in the body condition of polar bears. Sea ice is melting due to climate change meaning polar bears don’t have as much opportunity to hunt the ringed seals they depend on for survival.

However, the NorthSTAR team did observe something positive on their last Churchill trip in 2019.

“We saw more moms with cubs, which was a positive, because we hadn’t seen them in a couple years,” Szandra Temesvari said. “We were seeing a lot of lone males or females, so seeing moms with cubs seems to indicate something positive.”

“However, it’s really about changing what we do and how we impact the North.”


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