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One Picture

SPECIFICATIONS

Photographer: Jeff Hutchens
Subject: Tranquilized polar bear
Where: Near Kaktovik, Alaska
When: April 29, 2007
Camera: Canon 5D
Lens: 17-35mm variable focus
Exposure: Manually exposed at 1/2500th of a second @ f/3.2, ISO 50, focal length 17mm.,

 

Bad Bear News
At first glance this could be a scene from a BBC nature spectacular, a polar bear snoozing on sea ice in the blueish twilight of an Arctic spring—late April. Then you spot the tranquilizer dart in the animal’s neck and realize that the bear has a small role in a drama whose last act might well be the extinction of its species in the wild. For there is very little good news these days about Ursus maritimus, the great white bear whose survival is inextricably linked to polar ice that is disappearing at an accelerated pace because of rising temperatures in the Far North. Indeed, scientists say that vast sheets of sea ice as thick as 260 feet and thousands of years old have effectively vanished, while new computer models suggest that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer in just three years. Meanwhile, there is a report from Hudson Bay of starving polar bears, stranded on shore and unable to hunt seals from the ice pack, resorting to cannibalism.

Jeff Hutchens, who took this dazzling photograph several miles from Kaktovik, Alaska, on ice in minus-20-degree cold, relates that the bear, a subadult male perhaps two or three years old, was darted from a helicopter window by U.S. Geological Survey biologist Steven Amstrup. “Spotting white bears on white snow and ice is pretty tricky,” Hutchens says, “so scientists look for their tracks. The animal was smaller than I expected and definitely not your soft and warm teddy bear, for its fur was frozen into clumps and full of sharp ice.” He adds, “Sometimes people ask when they see the picture if the polar bear is dead, and I point out that you can see where its breath melted the snow right in front of its nose.”

Amstrup, it should be noted, headed the long-term study of polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea that no doubt influenced the species’ threatened classification in 2008 and the subsequent designation of 200,000 square miles of Alaskan coast and sea ice as critical habitat—a rather empty gesture if the ice melts. One other news item: A recent Yale poll shows that the percentage of Americans who are concerned about global warming has fallen below 50 percent.—Les Line

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