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Shocking Polar Bear Photos Show Stark Reality of Climate Change

Climate

The polar bears in Svalbard, a remote group of islands in the Arctic, are not doing well, according to photographer Kerstin Langenberger.

Langenberger posted on her Facebook:

I see the summers being so pleasant (and warm) as never before. I see the glaciers calving, retreating dozens to hundreds of metres every year. I see the pack ice disappearing in record speed. Yes, I have seen bears in good shape—but I have also seen dead and starving polar bears. Bears walking on the shores, looking for food, bears trying to hunt reindeer, eating bird's eggs, moss and seaweed. And I realized that the fat bears are nearly exclusively males which stay on the pack ice all year long. The females, on the other hand, which den on land to give birth to their young, are often slim. With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there's not much food. In the first year, they lose their first cub. In the second year, they lose their second (and last) cub. Only once I have seen a mother with a nearly independent cub. Only few times I have seen beautifully fat mothers with beautifully fat young. Many times I have seen horribly thin bears, and those were exclusively females—like this one here. A mere skeleton, hurt on her front leg, possibly by a desperate attempt to hunt a walrus while she was stuck on land.

Experts claim the Svalbard population is stable, even rising. Well, here comes my question: how can a population be stable if it consists of less and less females and cubs? How can a population be doing good if most bear will score a body index of two to three out of five? Only once I have seen a bear getting a big fat five, but several times I have seen dead bears and bears like this one: a mere one on the scale, doomed to death.

And while some, such as Iain Stirling from the University of Alberta, have cautioned against using this one photo as proof that all polar bears are starving in a warmer world, Langenberger is not the only one to sound the alarm.

"You have to be a little bit careful about drawing conclusions immediately," Stirling told Mashable. "[The bear] may be starving, but it may just be old. A difficulty hunting could be involved." Stirling noted that the bear appears to have an injury to one of its hind legs, which could have played a role in its weight loss. "I don't think you can tie that one to starvation because of lack of sea ice."

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Still, others such as National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, who has been to the Arctic on multiple occasions, was struck in a recent visit by the rapidly dwindling sea ice and the number of dead polar bears—something he had never seen before.

Last summer I traveled with a group of friends to Svalbard, Norway in search of polar bears. We went to my favorite spot where I have always been able to find bears roaming around on sea ice throughout the summer. On this occasion, however, we didn't find any sea ice and we never found any bears alive. We did find two dead bears in this location and other groups found more dead bears. These bears were so skinny, they appeared to have died of starvation, as in the absence of sea ice, they were not able to hunt seals. In all of my years of growing up in the Arctic and later, working as a biologist, I had never found a dead polar bear. It is now becoming much more common. Through @sea_legacy and @natgeo we will continue to shine a light on our changing planet to convince the unconvinced. Please follow me on @paulnicklen to learn more about the effects of climate change. #polarbear #nature #wildlife #arctic #seaice @thephotosociety

A photo posted by Paul Nicklen (@paulnicklen) on

And all of this anecdotal evidence is supported by scientific data. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) currently lists polar bears as "vulnerable"—one step above "endangered"—because it's believed that their numbers have been reduced by more than 30 percent in the last 45 years.

"Global climate change posses a substantial threat to the habitat of polar bears," says the IUCN. "Recent modeling of the trends for sea ice extent, thickness and timing of coverage predicts dramatic reductions in sea ice coverage over the next 50-100 years."

There's an ongoing campaign to save the polar bears by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Earthjustice and other groups.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.