My Greatest Adventure As A Wildlife Photographer

The Facts About Global Warming and Polar Bears

I recently saw a movie about Global Warming, “Cool It” by Bjorn Lomborg. A major theme of the movie is that we should stop letting ourselves be paralyzed into inaction by fear of the worst case scenario of global warming. In the movie, Lomborg attacks many of the facts in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Lomborg stated that the global population of polar bears has increased from about 5,000 in the 1960s to about 25,000 now, and that populations are still increasing. He further suggests that alarm regarding the state of the species is unwarranted. These seemed so incongruent with information from many other sources. Lomborg’s conflicting view of the polar bear’s survival made me recall my experiences photographing Polar Bears. The movie also motivated me to uncover the most up to date research on the Polar Bear’s survival status.

In mid August 2002, I read about a group of over 90 Polar Bears that were stranded at Pt. Barrow Alaska and east along the coast. No one knew why this large group of polar bears had appeared on a small spit of land. The bears were stranded when a wind storm blew the ice hundreds of miles away into the Chukchi Sea. The fall whaling season had always attracted a few Polar Bears to Point Barrow, 3 miles from the City of Barrow.

The Inuit people of Barrow and several other Arctic coastal villages are allowed to harvest one or two endangered Bowhead Whales each spring and fall. As part of their culture, they leave some of the remains for the polar bears to eat. This sounded like an unusual and dramatic event to witness and photograph. Polar Bears are usually solitary with the exception of mothers and cubs and brief mating season encounters.

I bought an airplane ticket and contacted a whale biologist in Barrow who I had met several years before. Serendipitously a Grey Whale carcass washed up on the beach a week before I arrived in Barrow. Initially the plan was to borrow the biologist’s truck and drive out onto the sandy spit. My friend later had some concerns about my borrowing his truck. He told me that the truck was old and mentioned that if I got stuck out there with the polar bears he would be somewhat responsible for me. He decided that because the bears were taking turns feeding on the Gray Whale carcass, “I would probably be safe renting an ATV”. (The logic of this still eludes me.) I bought a permit from the local Inuit authority and headed out to Point Barrow on an ATV alone.

Up to then I had spent about 70 days camping with and photographing Alaskan Brown Bears. I had never spent any time with polar bears. I had never driven an ATV. This was probably the dumbest thing I had ever done. I drove the ATV onto the beach and parked about 100 feet from 30- 40 polar bears who were taking turns feeding on the gray whale. There were another 50 bears within a couple of miles and the bears would frequently trade places. Keeping the ATV engine running seemed like a good idea. I set up my tripod and 500mm lens. Because I needed both hands on my camera, I kept a loaded flare gun between my teeth for the two days that I worked at Point Barrow. This was certainly one of my most exciting and frightening moments as a wildlife photographer. One young polar bear was curious about me and approached me to about 50 feet. I had a few very fearful minutes. I jumped on the ATV and revved the engine. The bear continued to approach me. I thought about leaving. I was torn between fear for my life and continuing to capture a once in a lifetime event. Instead I fired two flares over the bears head and he decided to leave me alone. Shortly afterwards the sun came out. Because the waves were crashing over the bears and the grey whale carcass, and because the bears took turns feeding, every photo was different.

I couldn’t load film fast enough. In the background of the photo there is a large Bowhead Whale skeleton. This Bowhead Whale is the remains of a whale that had been captured and butchered by the local residents.

The photo below was highly commended in BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest 2003. It was later purchased by the Smithsonian Museum for their permanent collection. A mixed group of Polar Bears (Ursus Maritimus) with an adult male, at least one adult female, sub-adults, yearling and two year old cubs are feeding on a gray whale carcass. This gray whale was killed perhaps a week earlier by killer whales. Many Glaucous Gulls wait their turn to feed. When I took this photo I could count thirty additional polar bears waiting their turn to feed.

During the two days of photographing, I observed very little aggression between the bears.

All bear species will play fight. Polar Bears are used to occupying large territories. Several bears wandered into the town of Barrow just three miles away. One bear was shot while it was sleeping on the grounds of the local elementary school. There was a general uneasiness in the town. There was some speculation that my activities at Point Barrow could be pushing some bears into town. I was told that I could no longer photograph in the vicinity of the bears at Point Barrow. Reluctantly I booked a plane to Kaktovik several hundred miles away and next to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For several years, I wondered about this unusual gathering of Polar Bears and if it could be considered an early manifestation of global warming. To my knowledge, this large gathering of bears didn’t happen again. As the amount of sea ice diminishes each year, polar bears may adapt their behavior to changing conditions, and congregating around a food source may become a more common feeding strategy.

As my airplane was landing in Kaktovik, I couldn’t believe my continuing good fortune and the scene that was unfolding. All the people of Kaktovik were on the beach and were hauling a recently harvested Bowhead Whale onto shore. After asking permission from the whaling captain, I photographed the event which lasted for hours. Late into the clear evening I was told that butchering this whale would take days. I wondered what the sunrise would be like in Kaktovik . I went to bed and awoke at 5am. The sky was getting red. I walked to the beach and the whole village had gone to sleep. I saw that much of the whale was intact and there was lots of meat left. A mother polar bear and her two cubs were feasting on the carcass.

(Now I didn’t even have an ATV for a getaway) I hurried back to my hotel and grabbed my 500mm lens and flare gun. This was another rare and lucky encounter with the Ursus Maritimus, the Ice Bear.

I spent a few more days in Kaktovic and chartered a flight over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.The most exciting part of the flight was photographing a flock of Snow Geese flying(see this photo at end of blog) a couple hundred feet below the airplane. I had never photographed thru an open door of an airplane. It would be another six years before my next encounter with the Ice Bear…

In the summer of 2008, I landed a two week job as cruise ship doctor on a trip around Spitzbergen Islands, Norway. This is spectacular arctic maritime scenery of mountains and icebergs. (See Hornsund panoramic at end of blog) )Our icebreaker managed to get stuck in the ice for 16 hours. We did see one polar bear at close range that I got to photograph from a Zodiac. (See more Spitzbergen photos at the end of the blog)

Back to finding the facts about the Polar Bear’s Survival

It seems that Lomborg, in his book and movie, has ignored the clear messages of all the known authorities on polar bears. In researching what experts had to say about Lomborg, I came across a fascinating website. In this informative website by biologist, Kare Fog, he reports that the facts and statements presented by Lomborg are often not reliable and “ are manipulated to fit a certain agenda.” There is also a section where Lomborg and Al Gore are compared by the same standards. Fog has an error list for Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and for Lomborg’s books and movies. (This is one of the best explanations I have seen regarding the complex relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature.)

Research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that bear populations are declining where the Arctic is warming. IUCN concluded the polar-bear populations “have declined significantly” where spring temperatures have risen dramatically. Ian Stirling, a widely recognized authority on Polar Bears describes declining birthrates and cannibalism among bears, blaming warmer spring temperatures that cause the sea ice to break up. Overall, since the mid-1980s polar-bear numbers have fallen, which Stirling and others attribute to global warming. Dr Stirling states “We have observed that the average body condition of the western Hudson Bay Polar Bears has been declining for almost 30 years. By mid-to-late November, if they can’t get on the sea ice to feed on seals, males may seek out alternate food sources.” (like other bears)

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The average date of breakup of the sea ice in western Hudson Bay is about three weeks earlier than it was 30 years ago, although there is a lot of variation between years. Twenty years ago, the average date the bears returned to the ice was Nov. 8.  With global warming, in some years the bears don’t get on the ice to feed on seals until December.

In the Journal of Wildlife Management, 2006, Stirling et al analyzed data for polar bears captured from 1984 to 2004 along the western coast of Hudson Bay and in the community of Churchill, Manitoba. The Western Hudson Bay polar bear population declined from 1,194 in 1987 to 935 in 2004. An excerpt from this paper states,“Survival of prime-adult polar bears (5–19 yr) was stable for females and males. Survival of juvenile, subadult, and senescent-adult polar bears was correlated with spring sea ice breakup date, which was variable among years and occurred approximately 3 weeks earlier in 2004 than in 1984. We propose that this correlation provides evidence for a causal association between earlier sea ice breakup (due to climatic warming) and decreased polar bear survival.    Because western Hudson Bay is near the southern limit of the species’ range, our findings may foreshadow ……what more northerly polar bear populations will experience if climatic warming in the Arctic continues as projected.”

From a study in ARCTIC 2006, Stirling, and. Parkinson reported that Inuit hunters in the areas of four polar bear populations in the eastern Canadian Arctic (including Western Hudson Bay) have reported seeing more bears near settlements during the open-water period in recent years. These observations, interpreted as evidence of increasing population size, have resulted in increases in hunting quotas. “Population data from two of the areas ( Western Hudson Bay and Baffin Bay)make it clear that those two populations at least are more likely to be declining, not increasing.”  The study goes on to mention that seeing more bears near coastal communities and hunting camps reflects  “more bears searching for food in years when their stored body fat depots may be depleted before freeze-up, when they can return to the sea ice to hunt seals again.” Craig George comment on above “True, the most evident climate effects will first occur on the fringes of the polar bear range. Some bears occur in S. Hudson Bay (James Bay) which is remarkably far south!”

From a 2010 study in Ecological Society of America, (Volume 91, Issue 10 (October 2010) Hunter and Stirling et al. evaluated the impacts of climate change on polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea. The introduction to this article states “The climate is changing faster in the Arctic than in other areas. For Arctic marine mammals, the most critical of these changes involve the sea ice environment. The extent of perennial sea ice in the Arctic has been declining since 1979 at an average rate of 11.3% per decade. The summer minimum sea ice extent in 2005 set a new record, which was broken again in 2007; the ice extent in 2008 was the second lowest on record. This trend has led to concerns about Arctic species with strong associations with sea ice. The polar bear is (top predator ) and one of the most ice-dependent of all Arctic marine mammals. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) depends on sea ice for feeding, breeding, and movement.

In the conclusion of this study, “Significant reductions in Arctic sea ice are forecast to continue because of climate warming. (There were three references given for this statement) The ice-free period in the southern Beaufort Sea increased by approximately 50% between 2001–2003 and 2004–2005. At the same time, survival and breeding probabilities declined.. The mechanisms linking sea ice to survival and reproduction of polar bears are not known in detail. Reduced prey availability no doubt plays a role because polar bears are dependent upon sea ice for capturing prey . In addition, reduced sea ice extent may force polar bears to swim longer distances, increasing their risk of drowning or starvation. The population projections showed drastic declines in the polar bear population by the end of the 21st century The current southern Beaufort Sea population numbers about 1500 individuals so a decline to 1% of current size would almost certainly imply extinction. The probability of this outcome is estimated at 0.80–0.94 by the year 2100, which is certainly a serious risk. Because all polar bears are dependent on sea ice for securing their prey, it is reasonable to expect that the effects of global warming on polar bears of the southern Beaufort Sea will ultimately extend to polar bears throughout their range. These projections were instrumental in the decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species (in 2008) under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2008

There has been a well documented shift in the Northern and Southern hemisphere of species movement towards the poles. In 2003 Nature published an analysis of studies of more than 1,700 species indicating significant range shifts averaging 6.1 km per decade towards the poles. It would seem logical that polar bears would move some populations further north in search of more ice. ( I have not yet seen any studies on this yet.)

There is good evidence that the Alaskan Brown Bear, a species that also includes Grizzly Bears, was a “precursor” to Polar Bears, which then went on to develop specializations for inhabiting the Arctic. As proof of their genetic compatibility, Brown Bears and Polar Bears can mate and produce viable offspring. The Polar Bear seems slower to adapt than Brown Bears and there has been a well documented shift of Brown Bears into Polar Bear habitat.

When National Wildlife Magazine published one of my polar bear photos in 2004, the photo editor asked me if I had seen any Brown Bears at Point Barrow. People had seen low-res photos of brown -colored bears at Point Barrow. From my photo, it looks like a few of the Polar Bears had rolled in some oil. I hadn’t seen any Alaskan Brown Bears. (I won’t get started on my opinion of more oil development in the Arctic)

In the last several weeks, (Dec 2010) OnEarth Blog published by NRDC ran a fascinating article by Bruce Barcott about hybridization between Polar Bears and Grizzlies (Alaskan Brown Bears).

A couple of bears that have been killed by hunters have been proven by DNA testing to be a hybrid of both species. In the December 16 (2010) issue of Nature, three researchers state that global warming and the disappearance of ice is encouraging the formation of hybrid offspring among other Arctic mammals including whales.

In the worst case scenario of climate change, the opportunistic Brown Bear or “Brolar Bear” could become the next “King of the Arctic. Our ability to protect a vulnerable species like Polar Bears says a lot about us as humans and the limits of our caring.

If you are interested in doing more to support Polar Bears, here are some organizations working on conservation of Polar Bears…..

Natural Resources Defense Council

Center for Biological Diversity


The above three organization have an on going lawsuit vs the Obama administration to get the Polar Bear listed as endangered rather than threatened. Even threatened status has resulted in critical habitat designation along Alaska’s North Slope.

Polar Bears International, lots of great info on their website

Organizations working on the climate crisis,

The Wilderness Society,

National Wildlife Federation

See more of Howie’s photos at

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