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The bear, the image, and climate change

His images of a dying polar bear – seen by millions around the world – became the emblem of the dire consequences of climate warming, and though that wasn't his intent, Paul Nicklen is happy his work is causing a stir.

The bear that made international headlines in early December steps into the water, and swims away from Somerset Island. Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

Nicklen is part of a group called Sea Legacy, and its mission is to "create high-impact visual communications that propel people to take action to protect our oceans."

Nicklen, who grew up on Baffin Island and is famous for his images of polar bears, says he never thought or said the bear was a victim of climate warming. He was simply moved by the experience.

"I post nothing but happy bears, fat bears, playing bears, running bears – all the time. It's not like I'm out there, one-sided, looking to sensationally stir the pot all the time. I think I like to think that I am pretty unbiased. When I find happy bears, I take pictures, and I put pictures of them up. It's not like I'm hiding that," he said.

"When I see a skinny, starving bear, I take a picture of that, as well. I said, 'This is not climate change.'"

Ian Stirling is a Canadian biologist who has focused his research on polar bears.

Stirling notes that there are 19 subpopulations of polar bears. The really fat ones, with a browning tinge, might be the ones on the Alaskan coast feasting on the remains of bowhead whales. Bears up in the Beaufort Sea region suffered due to a big ring seal reproductive failure. West Hudson Bay polar bears near Arviat, the most studied, are looking pretty good in numbers but they are less fat generally these days, and sea ice plays a role there.

About Nicklen's lone bear, Stirling said, "Nobody could say that animal is dying or starving because of climate change. If you didn't know what was going on with the animal individually, you could not know if he was sick or not doing very well, if he just had bad luck."

Reality vs. fantasy

The footage came during a boating trip Nicklen and a group of friends took this summer, celebrating the new Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area – a victory for Inuit, as he notes.

"It was all great. We saw fat bears and healthy bears. We saw lots of beluga whales and narwhals. It was an amazing trip," said Nicklen.

It was when they approached the east side of Somerset Island that they noticed a white lump on the ground.

"I looked closer and it seemed to be a polar bear that was sleeping. Then it moved its head and I realized instantly something was wrong. So I got my team, we snuck on the land. It didn't see us. We stayed downwind of it. We set up our cameras and just waited for a long time," said Nicklen, who was videotaping.

Cristina Mittermeier and the rest of the team were taking photographs. The bear got up and started moving. Behind him, Nicklen's friends began to cry. They were witnessing a suffering animal, one who seemed ready to die.

"Then he swam off in the water and left. I was worried at first, but he floated high. He seemed to do well in the water. He went around the corner," said Nicklen, adding it was difficult not to be emotional.

"As you know, I've grown up in the Arctic much of my life, am in love with the polar regions – as a biologist, as a photographer, and as a journalist-conservationist."

Viewers should not be deluded by the apparent nearness of the bear in the photos. Nicklen and his ilk are careful not to disturb wildlife – that's part of their job, not to mention a no-no in the Arctic.

But the reaction distracts from the real story, as both Nicklen and Stirling note: the sea ice is melting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic Report Card 2017 states that despite relatively cool summer temperatures, 2017 observations indicate that the Arctic has reached a 'new normal,' characterized by long-term losses in the extent and thickness of the sea ice cover.

For example, the report states that the sea ice cover continues to be relatively young and thin with older, thicker ice comprising only 21 per cent of the ice cover in 2017 compared to 45 per cent in 1985.

Let's talk climate change

Inuit know the starving bear is not the norm. Many communities have polar-bear patrols because of the large numbers now approaching communities, and they observe first-hand the health of the animals they see. And while bears sometimes look skinny, they aren't dragging their atrophied bodies across the community.

"We don’t ever or have never seen a polar bear that skinny, ever," said Clyde River senior administrative officer Lizzie Palituq.

"Polar bears with cubs come to town every once in a while," said Grise Fiord's assistant senior administrative officer Marty Kuluguqtuq. "We have a polar bear monitor daily and once they are seen, every effort is made to scare them away. All of them (polar bears) seem to be in good health."

Nicklen says he listens to Inuit elders and top scientists.

"I can see why people get angry when they see that (the image). You're sticking a massive cause onto a bear, and every time we see a skinny bear standing on ice people are saying, 'See – climate change.' For me, it's not that at all.

"But when the top scientists in the world on polar bears are coming to me and saying we stand to lose up to 30 per cent of the population by 2050, that's only 33 years away …

"It's bigger than polar bears. It's bigger than Inuit. It's the biggest issue facing our species today."