Are polar bears being killed by climate change?

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The video is unquestionably harrowing to watch — an emaciated polar bear stumbling through a terrain devoid of snow and ice, clumps of fur clinging to its sagging flesh and dragging one hind leg as it searches with increasing desperation for food.

There is no warning and no apology for presenting such images — but that is deliberate.

‘We know that it . . . will be deeply upsetting for many of you, but we cannot turn away from the urgent environmental crisis our planet is facing,’ says the accompanying introductory text on the website of environmental campaigners SeaLegacy.

The video is unquestionably harrowing to watch — an emaciated polar bear stumbling through a terrain devoid of snow and ice. A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine

The video is unquestionably harrowing to watch — an emaciated polar bear stumbling through a terrain devoid of snow and ice. A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine

Filmed on Somerset Island, near Baffin Island, and part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the footage purports to show a bear deprived of its hunting ground on the sea ice and forced to scavenge in a rubbish bin used by local fishermen. To the strains of a mournful soundtrack, the pathetic bear is seen chewing on a burnt piece of foam from a discarded snowmobile seat before slumping to the ground exhausted as the video fades to black.

A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine. Indeed, since it was published on the website of renowned magazine National Geographic, the clip has gone viral.  

‘Gut-wrenching’, ‘horrendous’ and ‘this should shame us all’ are typical of the comments on social media sites. The story has also been covered widely by the Press. ‘Video of Starving Polar Bear “Rips Your Heart Out of Your Chest” ’ was the New York Times headline, while The Guardian described how this ‘“Soul-crushing” video . . . exposes climate crisis’.

Filmed on Somerset Island, near Baffin Island, and part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the footage purports to show a bear deprived of its hunting ground on the sea ice and forced to scavenge in a rubbish bin used by local fishermen

Filmed on Somerset Island, near Baffin Island, and part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the footage purports to show a bear deprived of its hunting ground on the sea ice and forced to scavenge in a rubbish bin used by local fishermen

Filmed on Somerset Island, near Baffin Island, and part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the footage purports to show a bear deprived of its hunting ground on the sea ice and forced to scavenge in a rubbish bin used by local fishermen

To the strains of a mournful soundtrack, the pathetic bear is seen chewing on a burnt piece of foam from a discarded snowmobile seat before slumping to the ground exhausted as the video fades to black

To the strains of a mournful soundtrack, the pathetic bear is seen chewing on a burnt piece of foam from a discarded snowmobile seat before slumping to the ground exhausted as the video fades to black

To the strains of a mournful soundtrack, the pathetic bear is seen chewing on a burnt piece of foam from a discarded snowmobile seat before slumping to the ground exhausted as the video fades to black

The outcry is understandable — but there is just one problem with these stories. Although the bear was presumed to have died in the days following the sighting, no post mortem was carried out on it. As a result, no one can be sure what killed it, or link its death to those of other polar bears SeaLegacy and other environmental campaigners have made emotive claims about in the past.

In 2015, for example, German photographer Kerstin Langenberger posted a photo of a similarly gaunt polar bear on her Facebook page.

Explaining that it was taken in Svalbard, an archipelago of islands between mainland Norway and the North Pole (where, incidentally, the BBC’s enchanting Christmas documentary, Snow Bears, was filmed), she said it showed just one of several underweight females she’d spotted there. She was in no doubt about the cause of its wretched condition.

A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine. Indeed, since it was published on the website of renowned magazine National Geographic, the clip has gone viral

A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine. Indeed, since it was published on the website of renowned magazine National Geographic, the clip has gone viral

A more damning indictment of man-made climate change would be hard to imagine. Indeed, since it was published on the website of renowned magazine National Geographic, the clip has gone viral

‘I have eyes to see and a brain to draw conclusions. Climate change is happening, big deal here in the Arctic,’ she said. Despite her admission that she had no scientific data to support her conclusions, her online post spread worldwide.

A month later an image of a skeletal polar bear corpse was posted on the Instagram page of Paul Nicklen, a Canadian wildlife photographer and marine biologist who co-founded SeaLegacy with his partner Cristina Mittermeier, also a photographer and environmentalist.

SeaLegacy was unveiled at a high-profile event hosted by Prince Albert of Monaco at the principality’s Oceanographic Institute. Its mission is to make ‘high-impact visual communications that propel people to take action to protect our oceans’ — and Nicklen’s photograph was certainly ‘high impact’.

‘Gut-wrenching’, ‘horrendous’ and ‘this should shame us all’ are typical of the comments on social media sites. The story has also been covered widely by the Press. ‘Video of Starving Polar Bear “Rips Your Heart Out of Your Chest” ’ was the New York Times headline, while The Guardian described how this ‘“Soul-crushing” video . . . exposes climate crisis’

‘Gut-wrenching’, ‘horrendous’ and ‘this should shame us all’ are typical of the comments on social media sites. The story has also been covered widely by the Press. ‘Video of Starving Polar Bear “Rips Your Heart Out of Your Chest” ’ was the New York Times headline, while The Guardian described how this ‘“Soul-crushing” video . . . exposes climate crisis’

‘Gut-wrenching’, ‘horrendous’ and ‘this should shame us all’ are typical of the comments on social media sites. The story has also been covered widely by the Press. ‘Video of Starving Polar Bear “Rips Your Heart Out of Your Chest” ’ was the New York Times headline, while The Guardian described how this ‘“Soul-crushing” video . . . exposes climate crisis’

Nicklen said that he had taken it in Svalbard in 2014 where he had encountered a number of dead bears. He went on: ‘These bears were so skinny, they appeared to have died of starvation as, in the absence of sea ice, they were not able to hunt seals . . . [Finding a dead polar bear] is now becoming much more common.’

The key word there is ‘appeared’, an admission echoed in the SeaLegacy report about the Somerset Island bear. ‘It wasn’t possible for scientists to tell us exactly what was causing this bear to starve to death,’ the accompanying text says.

But that attempt at objectivity is completely overshadowed by a headline declaring: ‘This is the face of climate change.’

The outcry is understandable — but there is just one problem with these stories. Although the bear was presumed to have died in the days following the sighting, no post mortem was carried out on it

The outcry is understandable — but there is just one problem with these stories. Although the bear was presumed to have died in the days following the sighting, no post mortem was carried out on it

The outcry is understandable — but there is just one problem with these stories. Although the bear was presumed to have died in the days following the sighting, no post mortem was carried out on it

And it is this message which has been picked up around the world, much to the anger of climate change sceptics who decry such images as ‘tragedy porn’.

Among them is Canadian evolutionary biologist and blogger Dr Susan Crockford. ‘This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science,’ she wrote in a post three days after the release of the video.

Others have gone further, calling the story ‘fake news’ and a ‘scam’.

While SeaLegacy and other campaigning organisations are never going to win over climate change sceptics, there are signs of a more general backlash against the Somerset Island footage. This ranges from the BBC’s restrained headline ‘Polar bear video: is it really the “face of climate change”?’ to Canada’s National Post newspaper accusing SeaLegacy of a ‘calculated public relations exercise’.

As a result, no one can be sure what killed it, or link its death to those of other polar bears SeaLegacy and other environmental campaigners have made emotive claims about in the past

As a result, no one can be sure what killed it, or link its death to those of other polar bears SeaLegacy and other environmental campaigners have made emotive claims about in the past

As a result, no one can be sure what killed it, or link its death to those of other polar bears SeaLegacy and other environmental campaigners have made emotive claims about in the past

And even those scientists who are firm believers in man-made climate change have expressed disquiet.

Arctic wildlife biologist Dr Jeff Higdon, who’s worked in the region for the last 12 years, says: ‘I object to SeaLegacy drawing a straight line between that particular bear and climate change. It’s clearly starving but in my opinion that’s not because the ice suddenly disappeared and it could no longer hunt seals. There are lots of other possibilities as to how it ended up in that condition.’

He’s supported by Dr Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at the conservation organisation Polar Bears International. Although the footage was shot from some distance, he suggests the bear’s size and the pattern of hairs around its genital area indicate that it was a young adult male. The clue to all this lies in the violent sex life of the species.

When fighting over a female, male bears, which can weigh up to half a ton, stand on their hind legs — reaching to 10ft tall — and face up to each other like boxers. They have paws 12 in across and razor-sharp 2 in claws, and as they grapple, they bite and maul their opponent’s neck, causing scarring

When fighting over a female, male bears, which can weigh up to half a ton, stand on their hind legs — reaching to 10ft tall — and face up to each other like boxers. They have paws 12 in across and razor-sharp 2 in claws, and as they grapple, they bite and maul their opponent’s neck, causing scarring

When fighting over a female, male bears, which can weigh up to half a ton, stand on their hind legs — reaching to 10ft tall — and face up to each other like boxers. They have paws 12 in across and razor-sharp 2 in claws, and as they grapple, they bite and maul their opponent’s neck, causing scarring

When fighting over a female, male bears, which can weigh up to half a ton, stand on their hind legs — reaching to 10ft tall — and face up to each other like boxers. They have paws 12 in across and razor-sharp 2 in claws, and as they grapple, they bite and maul their opponent’s neck, causing scarring.

There is no sign of scarring in the Somerset Island bear, indicating it had either been involved in relatively few such encounters or had not reached sexual maturity, which generally happens between the ages of six and ten.

By the time this video was shot in August, the mating period would have been long over, as would their hunting season. Seals form the basis of their diet and the bear’s best chance of a kill is when a seal pops up through breathing holes in the sea ice. Without that ice to hunt on, the bears will go hungry. No one disputes that.

There is no sign of scarring in the Somerset Island bear, indicating it had either been involved in relatively few such encounters or had not reached sexual maturity, which generally happens between the ages of six and ten

There is no sign of scarring in the Somerset Island bear, indicating it had either been involved in relatively few such encounters or had not reached sexual maturity, which generally happens between the ages of six and ten

There is no sign of scarring in the Somerset Island bear, indicating it had either been involved in relatively few such encounters or had not reached sexual maturity, which generally happens between the ages of six and ten

But it’s also true that in many parts of the Arctic, including around Baffin Island, the sea ice has always melted in the summer. The grassy terrain the bear was seen staggering through is normal for that time of year.

What is striking, of course, is this bear’s dreadful physical condition — yet even that is not so unusual.

These animals are well-adapted to survive this period of seasonal famine, building up enormous reserves of fat during the spring and summer to help them survive the winter.

But the accounts of those living and working in the Arctic suggest that there have in fact been malnourished polar bears there for as long as there have been polar bears at all.

By the time this video was shot in August, the mating period would have been long over, as would their hunting season. Seals form the basis of their diet and the bear’s best chance of a kill is when a seal pops up through breathing holes in the sea ice. Without that ice to hunt on, the bears will go hungry. No one disputes that

By the time this video was shot in August, the mating period would have been long over, as would their hunting season. Seals form the basis of their diet and the bear’s best chance of a kill is when a seal pops up through breathing holes in the sea ice. Without that ice to hunt on, the bears will go hungry. No one disputes that

By the time this video was shot in August, the mating period would have been long over, as would their hunting season. Seals form the basis of their diet and the bear’s best chance of a kill is when a seal pops up through breathing holes in the sea ice. Without that ice to hunt on, the bears will go hungry. No one disputes that

‘These images might be shocking and disturbing, but if you talk to any kind of polar bear scientist they will tell you that this is not a new thing,’ says Dr Higdon. So too will members of the Inuit community whose ancestors are believed to have first settled in the Arctic Circle 4,000 years ago.

After the emergence of the video, the CBC — the Canadian equivalent to the BBC — broadcast a radio interview with Leo Ikakhik, an Inuit polar bear monitor whose job is to keep them away from his small community in Hudson Bay, another part of the Canadian Arctic.

He said that he ‘wasn’t totally surprised’ by the video. ‘Everybody probably was shocked to see a really skinny bear but this is not my first time seeing something like this. I wouldn’t really blame the climate change — it’s just part of the animal [life cycle], what they go through.’

He suggested the bear’s limp — attributed by SeaLegacy to muscle atrophy caused by malnutrition — could just as well be down to an injury or sickness. Dr Higdon goes a step further: ‘My speculation is it might have been suffering from a disease like bone cancer, which has been diagnosed in bears before.’

And it is this message which has been picked up around the world, much to the anger of climate change sceptics who decry such images as ‘tragedy porn’. Among them is Canadian evolutionary biologist and blogger Dr Susan Crockford. ‘This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science,’ she wrote in a post three days after the release of the video

And it is this message which has been picked up around the world, much to the anger of climate change sceptics who decry such images as ‘tragedy porn’. Among them is Canadian evolutionary biologist and blogger Dr Susan Crockford. ‘This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science,’ she wrote in a post three days after the release of the video

And it is this message which has been picked up around the world, much to the anger of climate change sceptics who decry such images as ‘tragedy porn’. Among them is Canadian evolutionary biologist and blogger Dr Susan Crockford. ‘This may be how you get gullible people to donate money to a cause but it isn’t science,’ she wrote in a post three days after the release of the video

He is at pains to point out this is just a well-informed guess, and suggests SeaLegacy should have been as clear in its presentation of the bear footage. ‘Videos like this tug at heartstrings and aim for emotional responses,’ he says.

‘But they have the potential to backfire with over-the-top statements that are usually easy for climate-change deniers to pick apart.’ For their part, SeaLegacy has issued a statement saying that the story has been misconstrued.

‘Our underlying and consistent message since this story broke has been that while we cannot know for sure why this bear was dying, we do know with certainty that if the Arctic continues to warm as fast as it is, in the near future we will see many more bears suffer this fate.’

That’s the clear message from organisations such as Polar Bears International. Its website warns: ‘Without action on climate change, scientists predict we could lose wild polar bears by 2100’ and ‘two-thirds could be gone by 2050’.

That’s the clear message from organisations such as Polar Bears International. Its website warns: ‘Without action on climate change, scientists predict we could lose wild polar bears by 2100’ and ‘two-thirds could be gone by 2050’.

That’s the clear message from organisations such as Polar Bears International. Its website warns: ‘Without action on climate change, scientists predict we could lose wild polar bears by 2100’ and ‘two-thirds could be gone by 2050’.

That’s the clear message from organisations such as Polar Bears International. Its website warns: ‘Without action on climate change, scientists predict we could lose wild polar bears by 2100’ and ‘two-thirds could be gone by 2050’.

Such claims are disputed by climate change sceptics who suggest the world’s polar bear population stands at around 30,000 — six times what it was 50 years ago.

In fact, it’s simply not possible to draw such conclusions. Polar bears are notoriously hard to count, partly as they are so adept at camouflage.

Even the Polar Bear Specialist Group, a consortium of experts charged with monitoring their numbers, classifies nine of the 19 populations as too ‘data-deficient’ to draw conclusions about their size.

The problem for environmental campaigners is that, just as there is no way to prove polar bear numbers are increasing, there is no way to prove they are in decline.

Against this background, it’s hardly helpful for organisations such as SeaLegacy to undermine more compelling evidence for global warming with misleading images which generate the kind of controversy attached to the Somerset Island bear.

It says it feels ‘proud and happy’ regarding the debate it sparked. But without the trust of the public it will have little hope of achieving the stated mission: to ‘create healthy and abundant oceans, for us and for the planet’.

And that, to use a word bandied about in the controversy over this bear, would be a tragedy indeed. 





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