Climate change kills slowly and by proxy: through fire, drought, cold, and starvation. The connection between an individual animal’s death and climate change is rarely clear—even when an animal is as emaciated as this polar bear.
Photographer Paul Nicklen and I are on a mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change. Documenting its effects on wildlife hasn’t been easy. With this image, we thought we had found a way to help people imagine what the future of climate change might look like. We were, perhaps, naive. The picture went viral—and people took it literally.
Paul spotted the polar bear a year ago on a scouting trip to an isolated cove on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic. He immediately asked me to assemble our SeaLegacy SeaSwat team. SeaLegacy, the organization we founded in 2014, uses photography to spread the message of ocean conservation; the SeaSwat team is a deployable unit of storytellers who cover urgent issues. The day after his call our team flew to an Inuit village on Resolute Bay. There was no certainty that we would find the bear again or that it would still be alive.
National Geographic went too far in drawing a definitive connection between climate change and a particular starving polar bear in the opening caption of our video about the animal. We said, “This is what climate change looks like.” While science has established that there is a strong connection between melting sea ice and polar bears dying off, there is no way to know for certain why this bear was on the verge of death. This is an updated version of the video.
When we arrived at the cove on a donated vessel, I scanned the shore with my binoculars. All I saw were a few dilapidated buildings, some empty fuel drums, and a very desolate landscape in what seemed like an abandoned fishing camp. We couldn’t locate the bear. Only when it lifted its head were we able to spot it lying on the ground, like an abandoned rug, nearly lifeless. From the shape of its body, it seemed to be a large male.
We needed to get closer; we boarded a Zodiac boat and motored to land. Strong winds covered our noise and smell. From the shelter of one of the empty buildings, we watched the bear. He didn’t move for almost an hour. When he finally stood up, I had to catch my breath. Paul had warned me about the polar bear’s condition, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The bear’s once white coat was molted and dirty. His once robust frame was skin and bones. Every step that he took was pained and slow. We could tell he was sick or injured and that he was starving. We could see that he was probably in his last days.
I took photographs, and Paul recorded video. As the bear approached the empty fuel drums looking for food, I could hear my colleagues sobbing.
When Paul posted the video on Instagram, he wrote, “This is what starvation looks like.” He pointed out that scientists suspect polar bears will be driven to extinction in the next century. He wondered whether the global population of 25,000 polar bears would die the way this bear was dying. He urged people to do everything they could to reduce their carbon footprint and prevent this from happening. But he did not say that this particular bear was killed by climate change.
National Geographic picked up the video and added subtitles. It became the most viewed video on National Geographic’s website—ever. News organizations around the world ran stories about it; social media exploded with opinions about it. We estimate that an astonishing 2.5 billion people were reached by our footage. The mission was a success, but there was a problem: We had lost control of the narrative. The first line of the National Geographic video said, “This is what climate change looks like”—with “climate change” highlighted in the brand’s distinctive yellow. In retrospect, National Geographic went too far with the caption. Other news outlets ran dramatic headlines like this one from the Washington Post: “‘We stood there crying’: Emaciated polar bear seen in ‘gut-wrenching’ video and photos.”
"Perhaps we made a mistake not telling the full story—that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future."
We had sent a “gut-wrenching” image out into the world. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that people didn’t pick up on the nuances we tried to send with it. Yet we were shocked by the response. Many people expressed gratitude that we’d shined a light on climate change, but others angrily asked why we had not fed the bear or covered him with blankets or taken him to a vet—none of which would have saved him. Those responses revealed how disconnected people are from wildlife, ecology, and even geography. And then there were those who are still bent on maintaining the dangerous status quo by denying the existence of climate change. We became to them yet another example of environmentalist exaggeration. But they offered us a glimpse of the daunting number of people we still need to reach.
Perhaps we made a mistake in not telling the full story—that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future and that we didn’t know what had happened to this particular polar bear.
I can’t say that this bear was starving because of climate change, but I do know that polar bears rely on a platform of sea ice from which to hunt. A fast-warming Arctic means that sea ice is disappearing for increasingly longer periods of time each year. That means many more bears will get stranded on land, where they can’t pursue the seals, walruses, and whales that are their prey and where they will slowly starve to death.
After finding nothing of value in the fuel drums, the polar bear waddled into the water and swam away. Paul worried that he would waste energy and die, but the bear seemed to have an easier time in the water. He disappeared around a bend in the shoreline. We never saw him again, but we hope that our images of this dying bear moved the conversation about climate change to the forefront, where it must remain until we solve this planetary problem.
Until then, when we come across a scene like this one, we will again share it with the world—and take pains to be sure that our intentions are clear and the narrative remains our own.
Lead Image: PHOTOGRAPH BY CRISTINA MITTERMEIER (ON A SEALEGACY EXPEDITION)
Cristina Mittermeier is a contributing photographer, speaker, and explorer for National Geographic. She is the co-founder, executive director, and vision lead of SeaLegacy, a nonprofit organization working to protect the oceans.