By Michael Bastasch
Every couple years photographs surface showing a “starving” polar bear whose plight is inevitably used to sound the alarm on man-made global warming.
However, like previous claims, footage of a single dying bear is not evidence of global warming-induced starvation.
This year, biologist Paul Nicklen published a video online of an emaciated polar bear on Baffin Island rummaging through trash cans, looking for food. The polar bear was likely at death’s door when Nicklen captured the footage in late summer.
Nicklen, who founded the environmental group Sea Legacy, said he wanted to highlight the future polar bears face because of global warming. It worked, and the video has gone viral, sparking media coverage about a polar bear that’s a victim of a warming world.
“We stood there crying—filming with tears rolling down our cheeks,” Nicklen said, National Geographic reported.
“When scientists say bears are going extinct, I want people to realize what it looks like. Bears are going to starve to death,” said Nicklen. “This is what a starving bear looks like.”
It’s certainly a sad sight, but it’s not evidence global warming drove that specific bear to starvation. In fact, experts noted that if starvation in the area was global warming-driven, carcasses would be strewn throughout the landscape.
Interestingly enough, Sea Legacy co-founder Cristina Mittermeier admitted the actual cause of death was “irrelevant” — the point of all of this, like past starving polar bear videos, is to sound the alarm on global warming.
“It is impossible to tell why he was in this state. Maybe it could’ve been because of an injury or disease,” Mittermeier told CBC News.
“The point is that it was starving,” she said, “as we lose sea ice in the Arctic, polar bears will starve.”
Polar bear experts, however, have cautioned that such photos don’t constitute evidence of global warming-induced starvation.
“In August, this bear would have been only recently off the sea ice: since most bears are at their fattest at this time of year, something unusual had to have affected his ability to hunt or feed on the kills he made when other bears around him did not starve and die,” Zoologist Susan Crockford wrote on her blog.
“It could have been something as simple as being out-competed for food in the spring by older animals,” Crockford wrote. “But if sea ice loss due to man-made global warming had been the culprit, this bear would not have been the only one starving: the landscape would have been littered with carcasses.”
In 2013, similar footage surfaced showing a dead polar bear that had likely starved to death on the island of Svalbard. That bear was also seized upon by activists to sound the alarm on melting Arctic sea ice, which bears hunt on.
German nature photographer Kerstin Langenberger posted a picture online in 2015, purporting to show a Svalbard polar bear brought to the brink of starvation due to a lack of sea ice. She used the photo to claim “climate change is happening big deal here in the Arctic.”
While climate models predict Arctic sea ice coverage will continue to shrink, polar bear numbers have been stable or rising in many areas with reliable population counts.
Recent population estimates suggest Baffin Bay polar bear numbers are on the rise, in contrast to other estimates claiming the population is “likely declining” due to over-hunting. Local Inuits have long contested claims of polar bear decline on Baffin Island.
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