BBC's Arctic Live: New documentary explores the icy wilderness, the impact of climate change and a 'polar bear jail'

A new BBC documentary airing over the next three nights will explore the undiscovered wilderness of the Arctic – a place that is changing faster than anywhere else on earth.

In Arctic Live, Simon Reeve, Kate Humble and Gordon Buchanan will visit remote areas in this vulnerable, icy region to find out what life is really like on top of the world, and how climate change is drastically reshaping the region.

The vast and beautiful Arctic spans eight countries and more than five million square miles of frozen ocean. The show will feature visits to Alaska, Greenland, Russia, Norway and Sweden.

The documentary will also have a live broadcast from Canada’s Churchill, where the bears gather in peak season to wait for the sea ice to freeze.

The town, in Hudson Bay, is best known as the Canadian Arctic’s polar bear capital, where hundreds of marine mammals gather on the frozen freshwater in September. A two-and-a-half-day train journey across barren prairies from Manitoba’s capital Winnipeg, Churchill really is on the edge of the wilderness.

Once a thriving port and military base, this frontier town has slowly been abandoned, and the small communities left are dealing with an increased presence of one particular species – polar bears.

Climate change causing melting sea ice is increasingly forcing the bears on to dry land. In the summer, the Churchill polar bears do little more than laze and languish, trying to conserve vital energy in a state of semi-hibernation. But every autumn they’re spotted around the shores of Hubbard Point and sometimes venture closer to the town.

The town has had problems with polar bears coming into contact with humans and, as viewers will see on Arctic Live, an alert team known locally as the Polar Bear Cops sometimes have to jump into action to scare them away.

Any repeat offenders end up in D20, the local “polar bear jail”, where they’ll remain until they can be safely transferred to more remote wilds. The stay is usually up to 30 days before release further up the coast, which is usually done by helicopter.

In the programme, viewers will see a 900lb male bear being airlifted out of the polar bear jail using a forklift. The bear is tranquillised for its own, and everyone else’s, safety.

The “problem” bear is also tagged and marked with a green dot so it can quickly be identified as a repeat offender, but the hope is that the bear will make its way further up the coast where it will wait for the sea ice to freeze so it can begin its winter hunt.

Less is understood about another species here – the beluga whale. Hudson Bay is also where the world’s largest gathering of the whale species happens as 59,000 beluga whales congregate to feed on capelin fish. Word is slowly spreading about the range of beluga-related tourist activities on offer, such as kayaking alongside the whales.

But hugely impacting all the animal species and communities in the areas featuring on Arctic Life is climate change.

Although many of the communities hope to exploit the change, which is opening up new opportunities for mining industries and fishing, presenter Simon experienced the effects of climate change first-hand while flying above Greenland’s ice sheet as part of an ice patrol looking for rogue icebergs drifting into shipping lines.

He said: “At 656,000 square miles and on average a mile thick, the ice sheet is vast in a way we can’t understand. Seeing it from a chopper, extending beyond the curve of the planet, was a genuinely emotional moment.

“Scientists reckon a trillion tons has melted in the last five years, and if that continues then sea levels could rise by seven metres. That’s a planetary-changing event.”

Simon also travels to an unspoilt corner of Greenland that could become one of the biggest uranium mines in the world, and joins Nasa scientists monitoring the melt of the glaciers there, while Kate follows the oil money that’s shaped Alaska and the bitter battle over offshore drilling.

Arctic Live begins on Tuesday night at 8pm on BBC Two.

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