Viral Photos of Emaciated Polar Bears and What They Mean for Global Warming

For many people who care about wildlife and the environment, when they see a photo of an animal suffering, it tends to shock them and make them wonder about how we, as humans, can allow such things to happen. This is one of the many reactions when a photograph of an emaciated polar bear went viral over social media recently. Being a nature lover myself, I pulled on my heart strings and allowed myself to look into why this polar bear appeared so deformed and not the majestic creature it probably once was. Unsurprisingly, the general consensus was that the cause for this suffering was due to the effects of ‘Global Warming’.

Viral photograph of a polar bear in very poor condition photographed on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard by Kerstin Langenberger Photography on www.arctic-dreams.com

Viral photograph of a polar bear in very poor condition photographed on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard by Kerstin Langenberger Photography on www.arctic-dreams.com

The emaciated polar bear was considered important due to the location of where the photo was taken. As the photo was taken just off of the Barents Sea on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, it is concerning that this area once boasted a strong population of polar bears. Polar bears that should have a very different appearance compared to the recent photo above.

 

Photograph of what a healthy polar bear should look like in an ideal environment. Taken from http://www.polarbearsinternational.org/

Photograph of what a healthy polar bear should look like in an ideal environment. Taken from www.polarbearsinternational.org.

In recent years, the National Wildlife Foundation reported that ‘Global Warming’ threatens polar bears with extinction and is the main reason that polar bears were the first ever vertebrates listed on the U.S Endangered Species Act solely endangered by ‘Global Warming’ and climate change.

 

How is ‘Global Warming’ Affecting Polar Bears?

Rise in Temperature – According to various sources, temperatures in the Arctic have increased at twice the rate of anywhere else in the globe, likely due to ice-albedo feedback mechanisms. By the end of this century, it is possible the temperature in the Arctic could increase by 8oC and some diagrams predict that the Arctic could be ice-free by 2030. This would not be just bad news for polar bears but many aquatic mammals and also damaging to the global ocean circulation.

NBC News reported in August this year after speaking to Merav Ben-David, a Professor of Zoology and Physiology who led a study on polar bear metabolism, that polar bears were previously thought to be able to enter a form of hibernation in order to attempt to compensate for the loss of on-ice foraging opportunities caused by climate change. Unfortunately, due to polar bears being sensitive to changes in temperature and lengthening of summer ice melt periods, polar bears are not entering hibernation and actually exerting more energy than they can acquire during the hotter summer months.

Another impact of a rise in temperature is previously mentioned regarding sea ice melting.

 

Sea ice extent observations (1970 to 2007) and forecast (2030 to 2100) reproduced using data from the NOAA GFDL model. Taken from www.wunderground.com

Diagram of sea ice extent observations (1970 to 2007) and forecast ice extents (2030 to 2100) reproduced using data from the NOAA GFDL model. Taken from www.wunderground.com.

 

Reduction in Sea Ice – Polar bears depend on see ice for foraging and hunting food as they do for nearly all of the life cycle functions. Their main diet comprises of seals and unlike seals, polar bears are not aquatic which means the sea ice is the only way they can access their food source.

Articles from USGS, reports that the Arctic’s summer ice cover has decreased significantly by over half a million square miles over the past twenty years, whilst the summer ice melt period has lengthened. Accordingly, although winter ice cover hasn’t changed significantly, the reductions in old ice (which is thicker and more stable) has led to significant reductions in the younger summer ice (which is thinner and less stable).

USGS has recorded observations that due to these changes in winter and summer ice cover and melt periods, younger and older polar bear generations are suffering a population decline over the past twenty years. Supporting the expected outcomes of a species undergoing change, prime age polar bears have an increased number of cannibalism and unexpected mortalities recorded.

Pollution and Contaminants – A rise in temperature combined with a reduction in sea ice has also led to some other negative impacts for polar bears. These factors may have allowed pollutants and other contaminants to make their way up to the Arctic and into the polar bear’s bones and tissues, indicating a possible form of neurotoxicity, according to Merav Ben-David.

 

It should be noted that the rising of temperatures, reduction of sea ice and pollution is a very limited list of effects on polar bears in the Arctic, but it should also be noted they changes do not just affect polar bears but numerous other aquatic mammals such as seals and whales. Many individuals and groups are of the view that it is the polar bears who are the poster children of a cry for help for action to stabilise the climate as best we can, because the impacts are so clearly visible from just one viral photograph.

Unfortunately, there are many people in the world who feel that we have delayed any form of action for too long and even if we were to change and act now, it may not necessarily save the creatures that sparked the action before seeing further decline. This is also dependant on human beings actually adhering to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other serious recommendations from scientists around the world.

“If we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions now, it will likely take at least a decade for the ambient air temperature to stabilize. During that lag, we will likely see the loss of more sea ice habitat and some degree of decline in polar bear abundance.” – Quote from Todd Atwood, Leader of the Polar Bear Research Program acting as a research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

 

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Beckie Joseph

Recent graduate with a BSc Hons Geology Degree. Interested in anything geology related but also environmental and archaeological topics!

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