Shining a LIGHT on the amazing Churchill Polar Bear

Our latest design project in the office has taken us all the way to the Polar Bear capital of world; Churchill, Manitoba!

We arrived here on Monday morning to get started on the new project. Janine and I were so excited to meet the locals, get to know the area and really experience the culture of this famous town.

And are we ever getting an experience of a lifetime! On Monday evening, the largest, strongest and most epic blizzard to ever hit Churchill blew into town and has currently stranded us here until further notice. We’re talking hurricane blizzard, snowmageddon, blizzacane 2017!  The massive amount of snowfall combined with 130km/h wind speeds along with dangerously extreme windchill temperatures of -55⁰C has basically buried and shut down the entire town. Despite all of this, our spirits are high! The locals have been nothing short of kind and hospitable. I do believe this is where the term Friendly Manitoba has originated!

So, what to do while riding out the storm? Well, in thinking about how to tie in the local culture into our design, I started researching the famous polar bear. As a lighting designer, I’ve discovered something beyond fascinating about these creatures, and I just can’t keep it to myself. I always knew that polar bears aren’t actually white, but that in fact their fur is clear and transparent. What I DIDN’T know was that the bear’s fur is actually LUMINESCENT!!

Each strand of polar bear hair is transparent, hollow and absolutely free of any pigment whatsoever. To ‘appear’ white, these hairs create optical tricks. The hollow cores are made up of the protein called Keratin and they also contain tiny light scattering particles. In addition, on the outside of the fur, in between each hair, are salt particles accumulated from the ocean waters.

The BEST part: When the rays of the sun hit the polar bear’s hair, the light’s energy gets trapped inside the hollow core and keeps bouncing off all of these tiny little particles. The effect is what is known as LUMINESCENCE.

Okay, let’s totally geek-out on this.

This luminescent effect gets stronger as the light hits these particles. The scattering of light breaks the beam up into several more beams of light and sending them off in many different directions. The beams of light are also scattered and reflected off of the salt particles on the outside of the hairs as well. Check out this graphic below that helps you understand the process a little better.

So in reality, the bears actually reflect the light and environment around them. The whitish light that is reflected from the bears helps with camouflaging themselves into the white Arctic ice and snow.

These gorgeous animals just hit the top of my cool lighting list!!

Photo Credit: Kennan Ward

I’m looking forward to the challenge of translating this amazing concept into a lighting design scheme that will truly reflect the beauty and wonder that is Churchill, Manitoba.

Elaina (the newest resident of Churchill)

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