When Patty Waymire headed to Barter Island, Alaska a few months ago, she expected to take lots of photographs of polar bears frolicking in freshly fallen snow. However, once the photographer arrived at her destination, a stark reality became evident. Not only was there no snow for frolicking, but there was no ice to be seen either. The typically snow-covered island was warm and dry, and the water’s edge was met with sandy beaches rather than icy ground. Waymire took photos anyway, capturing still frames of the ever-unfolding saga that pits climate change against the survival of one of the Earth’s most majestic creatures.
One of Waymire’s images—aptly entitled “No Snow, No Ice” (above)—shows a lone polar bear perched at the edge of a brown, sandy shoal which should have been white with snow at that time of the year. That startling photograph won an honorable mention in the 2016 National Geographic Photographer of the Year contest in the Environmental Issues category. Monica Corcoran, director of the photography contest, noted that the polar bear appears to be “in a meditative Buddha stance” which contributes to the image’s impact.
Alaska’s Barter Island is situated off the state’s northern coast in the Arctic. The relatively small island has served as a major trading hub and was also home to a large whaling village prior to 1900. All the while, polar bears have roamed the island’s icy shores doing what polar bears do: hunting prey, raising young, and just living. In early October, at the time of Waymire’s visit, the island would normally have been covered in snow, according to locals. However, unusually warm weather all year has ushered in a less-than-impressive autumn and winter, and the resulting scene of fluffy white polar bears cast against drab brown dirt inspired the California-based photographer to show the world what climate change really looks like.
In a series of 33 images, Waymire documented several Barter Island polar bears, including some young cubs, both on land and in the water. Without a date stamp, one might think the photographs were captured in the midst of the warmest summer months, because there is not a single snowflake or ice crystal visible in any of the images. But, since we know the photos are from October, we must accept the sad reality that they represent: an ever-changing climate in which even the coldest climes are not exempt from global warming. For now, the Barter Island polar bears are surviving, but with the growing impact of climate change on their habitat and food sources, it’s only a matter of time before they disappear just like the snow.
Images via Patty Waymire