Award-Winning Polar Bear Image Offers Heartbreaking Climate Change Reminder

The Natural History Museum announces its annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, highlighting animals' struggle to stay alive.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Gael Cooper
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Nima Sarikhani spent three days searching for polar bears to photograph before capturing a young male who found a remaining iceberg, clawed out a bed and drifted off to sleep in Norway's Svalbard archipelago.

Nima Sarikhani/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

A polar bear's plight in an award-winning photo is a blunt reminder that emissions from burning fossil fuels are warming up the planet and leading to more extreme weather. Nima Sarikhani's image of a polar bear snatching a nap on a small iceberg won top honors in the People's Choice category of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, developed and produced annually by the Natural History Museum, London.

"I am so honored to have won this year's People's Choice award for WPY, the most prestigious wildlife photography competition," Sarikhani said in a statement. "This photograph has stirred strong emotions in many of those who have seen it. Whilst climate change is the biggest challenge we face, I hope that this photograph also inspires hope. There is still time to fix the mess we have caused."

Climate change is upsetting natural processes in numerous ways, including the melting of Arctic sea ice, which contributes to rising global sea levels and coastal flooding. As governments, businesses, communities and individuals reckon with the potentially dire environmental, humanitarian and economic consequences, they're also looking for ways to minimize the impact and find a better way forward. (For more on that, see our CNET Zero climate coverage.)

Polar Bear Cuddles Up to Shrinking Iceberg in Winning Wildlife Photograph

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"Nima's breathtaking and poignant image allows us to see the beauty and fragility of our planet," museum director Douglas Gurr said in a statement. "His thought-provoking image is a stark reminder of the integral bond between an animal and its habitat and serves as a visual representation of the detrimental impacts of climate warming and habitat loss."

More than 50,000 images competed in the competition, with only 100 receiving finalist honors. Other images include an orphaned chimpanzee at a rehabilitation center, an inquisitive lion cub strolling toward the photographer and a swirling flock of starlings taking the form of one giant bird over Rome. 

Several honored photos, including a fox digging through trash in a London rubbish bin, a Celebes crested macaque trying to drink from a discarded drink bottle and a bull elephant scavenging in a garbage dump, show how the wild world of these animals has been forced into conflict with the trash humans unthinkingly leave behind.

All of the shortlisted images are on display in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London until June 30.

For CNET's insights and advice on photography, see how AI factors into what's true in photoshow HDR technology brings striking realism, depth and detail and how an old phone can still take awesome photos