Photographer of 'horribly thin' polar bear hopes to inspire climate change fight

In mid-August, Kerstin Langenberger took a photo of a startlingly skinny polar bear, one that she thought was days away from death.

The photographer speculates climate change was responsible for the bear's state

Kerstin Langenberger posted this photo on her Facebook page, and suggested a link between the polar bear's emaciated state and climate change. The photo has been shared more than 52, 000 times. (Kerstin Langenberger/Facebook)

In mid-August, Kerstin Langenberger took a photo of a startlingly skinny polar bear, one she thought was days away from death.

The Arctic nature guide had been showing tourists around Svalbard, an archipelago in northern Norway, aboard an expedition cruise boat. It had been a foggy day, she said, but something out in the distance caught her eye.

"Suddenly there was this one smaller ice flow, and on it was this yellow spot that we thought was a polar bear," she said. "We didn't realize how thin it was until it stood up."

"It was totally clear to everybody that the bear would not survive more than a few more days," Langenberger, a German national who works as a photographer and a conservationist, told CBC News from Iceland.

She eventually posted the photo to Facebook on Aug. 20, speculating on why the bear appeared so emaciated.

"Many times I have seen horribly thin bears, and those were exclusively females — like this one here," she wrote in the widely shared post. "A mere skeleton, hurt on her front leg, possibly by a desperate attempt to hunt a walrus while she was stuck on land."

She also suggested the bear was starving as a result of melting sea ice and decreased access to food, likely the effects of climate change.

The post quickly garnered response about whether there was a solid link between the bear's scrawny state and climate change.

"This is on us humans, and something needs to change and get done," one concerned writer posted, though others argued it could be either sick or old.

Langenberger didn't know she had attracted so much attention. She had posted the photo in between trips to Svalbard, and didn't have access to the internet while she was away.

"I wanted to reach people. I wanted to send a message and get a reaction, but I didn't expect it to be so big," she said.

Polar Bears International's senior director of conservation says he has mixed feelings about the attention such photos have received. 

"On the one hand it's great that images of wildlife, in this case polar bears, make people curious about their conservation," Geoff York said in a telephone interview.

"When you get claims that this picture of this particular bear is evidence of climate change then you've crossed a bridge too far."

York doesn't discount that the bear could represent the significant year-by-year changes happening in Svalbard. The archipelago is part of the Barents Sea region and "that part of the Arctic has seen the greatest amount of sea ice lost since the record began in '79," York said.

He said he's also begun to see more photos of dead or emaciated polar bears. Last week, Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen posted a photo on Instagram of a dead polar bear lying over rocks on Svalbard's coast.

Seeing a dead or dying polar used to be much rarer, said York and Langenberger, while Nicklen wrote a similar comment in his Instagram post.

"Without question, images like these are consistent of what we would expect from scarce food and habitat loss. We expect to see more bad years and more skinny and dead polar bears," York said.

Sea ice is an essential part of the Arctic ecosystem. The plants that grow beneath the ice sustain creatures that would eventually feed a polar bear. York said that there just isn't the "calorie bang for your buck on the coast," which can lead to fewer cubs being born and smaller populations.

Langenberger said that she knows she can't make a definitive connection between the bear she saw and the much broader effects of climate change, but she wanted to connect with people.

"Climate change is undeniable," she said. "It is happening and we have to do something about it. And this photo, I can say to all of you: Look at it."