A stunning photo of a polar bear drifting off to sleep on a bed of ice has won the Natural History Museum's 2023 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, drawing attention to the plight of polar bears, whose frozen Arctic homelands are being eroded by global climate. Change at an alarming pace.
The poignant image shows a polar bear curled up on the side of an iceberg off the Svalbard archipelago, an island north of Norway beyond the Arctic Circle.
Nima Sarekhani, the photographer who took the award-winning photo, spent three days searching for polar bears on a ship circling the Norwegian islands until he came across a pair of bears, according to a press release from the Natural History Museum. That night, the Little Bear made a resting place and drifted away, creating the perfect scene for Sarykhani's portrait.
“While climate change is the biggest challenge we face, I hope this image also inspires hope,” Sarikhani said in a press release. “There's still time to fix the mess we made.”
The bear captured in the photo is one of an estimated 3,000 bears living in the Barents Sea, which migrate between Svalbard and the Russian Arctic islands, according to the Natural History Museum.
Svalbard's polar bears, one of 19 subpopulations in the world, are facing a crisis as climate change continues to degrade their icy habitat.
Svalbard has warmed between 5.4 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the past half-century, leading to thinning of ice that is essential for polar bear survival, according to a report commissioned by the center. Norwegian Environment Agency In 2019. This means that bears have to swim longer distances and do not have as much contact with others.
Melting ice prompts bears to search for food on the beach
Todd Atwood, who leads the polar bear research program at the U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Science Center, said there is no “uniform response by polar bears to the changes occurring throughout the Arctic.” However, the ongoing melting of ice is negatively affecting some residents.
In the southern Beaufort Sea, where he is conducting his research, Atwood said bears are doing “relatively poorly” due to the loss of sea ice over their continental shelf.
“Historically, these bears spent most of their year on sea ice,” Atwood said. “Now, over 30% of the population has learned how to come to the beach during the summer and fall.”
Because food is scarce on land, polar bears that have to travel ashore are often in a “physiological state of nutritional stress,” which may attract them to areas with more people, Atwood said.
Female bears may also have trouble giving birth to their cubs safely if they can't feed enough to maintain adequate body mass, Atwood said.
more:Where do polar bears live? Learn more about the Arctic sea bear's habitat.
Polar bears face a crisis as the climate warms
Study issued In September last year it revealed the scale of the devastating impact climate change is having on polar bear populations. For the first time, researchers have directly linked greenhouse gas emissions to their impact on the survival of polar bear cubs.
“We have known for decades that continued warming and loss of sea ice can only ultimately lead to a decline in the distribution and abundance of polar bears,” Stephen Amstrup of Polar Bear International, lead author of the study, said in a report titled “We have known for decades that continued warming and loss of sea ice can only ultimately lead to a decline in the distribution and abundance of polar bears.” press release. “But until now, we lack the ability to distinguish between the impacts of greenhouse gases emitted by specific activities and the impacts of historical cumulative emissions.”
The scientists who conducted this study believe their work can provide a scientific framework for policymakers to strengthen the Endangered Species Act to increase protection of polar bears.
According to the US Department of the Interior, new fossil fuel and drilling projects must be evaluated independently of historical emissions of greenhouse gases.
The researchers believe the study could help the US federal government consider the impacts fossil fuel projects may have on polar bears when evaluating project proposals.
A previous study led by Amstrup released in 2020 showed that polar bears are at risk of extinction by the end of the century if measures are not taken to limit climate change. Polar bears were the first species to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming.
The researchers explored the relationship between thawing ice and periods when bears were forced to fast. The longer bears are unable to eat, the greater their risk of reduced body condition, reproduction and survival.
Amstrup said he hopes the same methodology can be used in the future to help researchers protect other wildlife populations, calling the research “the most important paper of my career.”
Atwood said the situation facing polar bears is not hopeless, if the damage caused by fossil fuel emissions is curbed in time.
“There is still an opportunity for greenhouse gas mitigation that would preserve polar bear habitat and sustain polar bear populations,” he said.
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