Last month, wildlife photographer Kerstin Langenberger shocked the world when she revealed a horrifying photograph of a severely emaciated polar bear, shot on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. In a Facebook post, she expressed her concerns about the health of the Svalbard polar bears and the ways climate change might be affecting the Arctic. Her photo, visible here, quickly went viral — having been shared more than 50,000 times since then.
So when Langenberger’s photo surfaced, the immediate conclusion for many people was that the starving bear was the victim of warming-induced ice-melt in the Arctic. But while this is possible, experts are cautioning the public not to make the image the new face of climate change just yet. As a recent Live Science article pointed out, that bear’s condition could have been caused by a variety of other factors. And while climate change remains a serious long-term threat to polar bears, immediately blaming global warming for a single bear’s starvation could even be considered misleading, or could obscure some of the other challenges bears face in the short term.
“It is not possible to attribute this animal’s specific condition to climate change, without more information on the animal’s history and physiology,” said Eric Regehr, a polar bear biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, by e-mail. Since polar bears have no natural, or non-human, predators, many of them end up dying “from old age, injury, or other conditions that lead to starvation,” Regehr said. So we can’t say for sure that sea ice loss is the culprit behind this particular animal’s condition.
It’s also true that scientists don’t have adequate data to say for sure how climate change is currently affecting all the polar bears in the Arctic. There are close to 25,000 polar bears in all, grouped into 19 subpopulations. For now, research has shown that two of these are thought to be declining as a result of sea ice loss, Regehr said, and for many other subpopulations, scientists don’t have enough information about them to say how they’re doing. Other subpopulations are actually stable or even increasing.
Still, polar bears’ dependence on the sea ice is a well-known fact, and many biologists and conservationists agree that the continued loss of ice could pose a problem for the bears in the future, even if many of them are still doing okay for now. Recognizing this, the federal government listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.
Some scientists have made optimistic suggestions about ways the bears might be able to adapt to their changing landscape in the future, but several of those have already been debunked. One theory, which was popular for decades, suggested that polar bears are capable of a kind of “walking hibernation,” which allows them to conserve energy and get by on less food in times of stress. But a recent study confirmed that, unfortunately, the bears have no special adaptations against starvation after all.
Another theory proposed that the bears could switch to different food sources on land. But a review of the current literature on polar bear diets suggested that they can’t get enough energy from land-based food sources and need the fatty, sea-going seals to survive.
“Sea-ice loss due to climate change is the primary threat to polar bears,” Regehr said. “Global action to address climate change is the single most important action determining the long-term survival of the species.” He added that the fact that different subpopulations appear to be existing at varying levels of stability suggests that biologists should take a more nuanced approach to managing and protecting them.
“We need scientific studies to understand the variability [among these populations], and we need to use that understanding of that variability to design customized specific conservation and management plans, both for the long-term threat of climate change, but also the issues in the here and now,” he said, such as threats posed by industrial development or environmental contaminants.
In these ways, Langenberger’s starving Svalbard bear could represent many things, from old age to climate change and a wide variety of issues in between. But while the story behind this particular animal remains unclear, it still serves an important purpose by drawing public attention to the issue, according to Regehr. It’s just important to make sure the plight of a single animal doesn’t obscure the our understanding of the challenges faced by the species as a whole.
“The challenge is to communicate a balanced and accurate message that acts in the interest of polar bear conservation,” Regehr said. “This requires shifting focus from this individual animal—recognizing that polar bears, like all animals, get sick, injured, or old as part of life—to the species as a whole.”