You Can Now Visit Polar Bears in an Electric Tundra Buggy

You Can Now Visit Polar Bears in an Electric Tundra Buggy
Polar bears in front of a tundra buggy. (Photo: ©Robert Taylor/Frontiers North Adventures)

Churchill, Manitoba, is a staging ground of sorts for polar bears. The bears hang tight there, waiting for sea ice to form on Hudson Bay each winter so that they can go for a hunt for seals.

While they wait, a lucky few people get to visit with them each year via organised tours. And now, one tour operator will allow them to do so in an electric “tundra buggy.” Frontiers North Adventures have created an electric vehicle fit for the sub-Arctic.

The new vehicle is a relatively small contribution on a global scale to reducing emissions. But in a world where every ton of carbon dioxide not dumped in the atmosphere matters, the new tundra buggy is a benefit. It shows EVs can work just about anywhere, which is good news for the polar bears whose continued existence banks on humanity to get its shit together.

More Than Your Average Buggy

The electric tundra buggy on a flatbed at night. (Photo: ©Alex Cupeiro/Frontiers North Adventures) The electric tundra buggy on a flatbed at night. (Photo: ©Alex Cupeiro/Frontiers North Adventures)

The term “buggy” might conjure up something akin to a go-kart or speedy little vehicle to whip around dunes on. The tundra buggy, though, is a whole other beast. It’s a vehicle on steroids, one that would make the Hummer EV look like a toy car. The buggy is 40 feet (12 meters) long to accommodate 40 guests and all the machinery needed to get it out on the tundra. Its wheels are 1.5 meters in diameter, which allows the buggy to navigate the uneven terrain of the sub-Arctic with relative ease.

Frontiers North Adventures operates tours in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. While the buggy can handle going off road, Jessica Burtnick, the company’s manager for marketing and communications, said that there’s “an established network of trails in that area, which is quite a pristine and delicate environment, so we have to stay on those trails to make sure we’re not doing damage.”

Making a Tundra Buggy Electric

The electric tundra buggy out in the field. (Photo: ©Alex Cupeiro/Frontiers North Adventures) The electric tundra buggy out in the field. (Photo: ©Alex Cupeiro/Frontiers North Adventures)

Turning a diesel-powered tundra buggy into an electric version is no small feat. It requires a new motor and battery packs to replace the internal combustion components, something in other vehicles can be quite costly. For the tundra buggy conversion, Frontiers North got a $US149,000 (A$207,075) grant from the provincial government’s Conservation and Climate Fund.

That helped it procure used battery packs from a company that was working to pilot electric buses in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. The buggy uses four banks of batteries, each with seven batteries apiece, to keep the wheels turning. Red River College Polytechnic in Winnipeg provided technical support through its Vehicle Technology and Energy Centre.

“The EV Tundra Buggy project is a quintessential made-in-Manitoba story,’ Fred Meier, the president of Red River College, said in a statement in August when the team was putting the finishing touches on the buggy.

A Whole New Tundra Exploration Experience

A polar looks up at passengers on a tundra buggy. (Photo: ©Alex Cupeiro/Frontiers North Adventures) A polar looks up at passengers on a tundra buggy. (Photo: ©Alex Cupeiro/Frontiers North Adventures)

Having given sleigh ride tours to visit elk herd at the National Elk Refuge, I can attest to the fact that wildlife can get used to pretty weird sights such as humans aboard a workhorse-driven sleigh.

While diesel-powered vehicles are decidedly noisy and can be kind of stinky, Burtnick said the bears have gotten used to them. How they react to the electric version remains to be seen. (They’ll have to wait until next season since the bears have already set off on the ice this year.)

“The polar bears are used to the tundra buggies,” she said. “It’s a familiar sight. It’s a familiar sound. We are hoping to do some sound studies with our partners. We partner with Polar Bears International as well as the Assiniboine Conservancy, and we might have some opportunities to see how polar bears are going to react to these large vehicles that are silent.”

A Carbon Footprint Shrunk

Polar bears sitting on the tundra. (Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International) Polar bears sitting on the tundra. (Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International)

Frontier North operates 12 tundra buggies in total. The goal, Brutnick said, is to transition them to an all-electric fleet.

“We learned a lot from this first one,” she said. “This first one took us quite a long time. The second one should be a lot easier, like drag and drop.”

Transitioning the whole fleet to electric will save an estimated 3,600 tons of carbon emissions over 25 years. For a small tour operator, that’s no small feat.

Big Challenges Remain, Though

A polar bear looking out at open water. (Photo: KT Miller/Polar Bears International) A polar bear looking out at open water. (Photo: KT Miller/Polar Bears International)

But in the scheme of things, especially considering the fact that getting to Churchill requires a carbon-intensive flight (or a long train ride that only runs twice a week), that’s a relative drop in the bucket of an average tourgoer.

“We don’t have a direct answer at this stage of how we can reduce those other GHG emissions, but it’s something that we talk about all the time,” Brutnick said. “It’s something that we do care about, and I do believe that when we have a solution, we’re going to be implementing it. It’s not a perfect answer.

“We’ve explored the option of carbon offsets, and we choose not to do it. The reason why we choose not to do it is because we don’t want to simply mask the problem. The EV tundra buggy was a way for us to do that as a company because that was something within our control where we could actually reduce those emissions.”

It’s Also Clear One Tour Operator Can’t Solve This

A polar bear among the tundra as frost and snow settle on bushes. (Photo: KT Miller/Polar Bears International) A polar bear among the tundra as frost and snow settle on bushes. (Photo: KT Miller/Polar Bears International)

That points to the fact that to protect polar bears (to say nothing of, uh, us) will require a much larger response than individual companies doing what they can. Cleaning up the world’s carbon pollution is an all-hands-on-deck situation, one that will require government regulations and funding. So far, that type of effort has proven elusive at the international level.

Climate Threats Are Mounting for Wildlife — and People

A polar bear with snow on its nose. (Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International) A polar bear with snow on its nose. (Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer/Polar Bears International)

The longer the world fails to draw down carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution, the more likely it is that the Arctic and sub-Arctic will suffer. The region is warming nearly three times faster than the rest of the planet, unleashing a host of changes. Among them are the disappearance of sea ice, which means polar bears have a harder time hunting seals and raising their young. Oil and gas extraction in the region also poses a threat to the animals, compounding polar bears’ woes.

Those woes are also impacting people in the Arctic, including Indigenous groups that call the region home. In short, there’s an urgent need for more action to preserve this fragile part of the world.

Bringing a Monster EV to the Sub-Arctic Is Proof of Concept

The electric tundra buggy at its unveiling. (Photo: ©Abby Matheson/Frontiers North Adventures) The electric tundra buggy at its unveiling. (Photo: ©Abby Matheson/Frontiers North Adventures)

While massive changes are needed to overhaul the global economy, the electric tundra buggy is shows the future doesn’t have to rely on fossil fuels. Operating a huge EV in the harsh sub-Arctic is a huge research opportunity to see what does work and where more innovation is needed.

Frontiers North has installed electric charging stations that can juice the supersized EV at two locations and has a mobile charger should there be a need to power up the buggy in the field. Brutnick said the operations use hydropower generated in Manitoba, meaning there are real carbon savings.

“We have a responsibility to make sure that we’re helping to make things better and not contributing to the issue,” she said. “We’re bringing infrastructure into the town of Churchill. Right now, it’s for the tundra buggy. However, it’s just going to be a matter of time before others are going to be able to do this as well. And having that infrastructure ready there and plug-in ready is going to hopefully create some clean jobs and other opportunities for other operators and Churchillians.”