Photographer Patty Waymire traveled to Alaska’s Barter Island from late September to early October with an express purpose: To take pictures of polar bears in their natural environment, surrounded by picturesque snow.
But there was no snow to be found.
“I was surprised when I arrived, to find there was no snow nor was the sea ice forming yet,” Waymire told The Huffington Post. “The locals told me that it was an unusually warm winter and that the snow would be late in arriving. It is one of the warmest winters on record.”
So instead, she photographed the bears on patches of sand and dirt, or swimming in the Beaufort Sea. One photo — “No Snow, No Ice,” above — which shows a solitary bear looking down into the water, won an honorable mention in a National Geographic photo competition and has been hailed as a poignant depiction of the effects of climate change.
Waymire said she understands why people say the bear looks “sad” or “lonely,” but clarified that there was no reason to believe the animal was actually in any immediate distress.
“The shot struck me immediately as he seemed so contemplative, sitting there on the shore of one of the Barter Islands,” she said. “The lack of snow and ice was so evident that it told a story without requiring any words.”
Arctic sea ice — which one scientist called a “platform of life” for polar bears — has been disappearing as global temperatures have risen for years. Sea ice begins forming in the Arctic in the fall, then breaks up and recedes in the summer.
A study published this year, based on satellite data, found that between 1979 and 2014, the time span between the spring break-up and the fall freeze has increased from between three to nine weeks. That means less time on the ice for the bears to hunt seals, a crucial part of their diets, and build up their fat reserves for the times of the year when the ice isn’t as plentiful.
In the region of Beaufort Sea, where Waymire took her photos, loss of sea ice has been correlated with lower survival rates for polar bears. Lack of sufficient ice has, in recent years, also propelled many bears to spend more time in land, hanging around the Alaskan village of Kaktovik.
Arctic sea ice reached a record low this October, when the extent of the ice was as low as it had ever been measured for that time of year. Meanwhile, sea surface and air temperatures in the Arctic were at record highs, with air temperatures higher than normal by up to 20 degrees Celsius.
Waymire, who is drawn to the beauty of the Arctic, says she fears for the future that humans are leaving their children. Encouraged by recent efforts by President Barack Obama to protect the region for future generations, she said she hopes President-elect Donald Trump will go to the Arctic himself and see “why this incredibly special place must be protected.”