A Polar Bear dives under Ice, Admiralty Inlet, Alaska
A polar bear is photographed underwater in Lancaster Sound in the Canadian Arctic. Paul Nicklen

Polar Bears and Climate Change: The Photographs That Moved Them Most

Updated: Feb 27, 2017 9:49 PM ET

Images, whether captured by a satellite, a scientist, an explorer, a photojournalist or an artist, enable us to record, study and reflect on our planet's evolving state.

To raise awareness to the planet's changing climate, melting ice, and its impact on polar bears, a group of scientists and conservationists with the non-profit Polar Bear International have marked Feb. 27 as the International Day of the Polar Bear. They believe that as the amount of sea ice declines, polar bears in the wild are at greater risk of extinction.

Under the Endangered Species Act—which the Republicans in Washington have said they will seek to “modernize"—polar bears are listed as a threatened species.

With recent projections of ice sheets melting at increasing rates, the polar bear’s survival (in the arctic) is dependent on the continued existence of sea ice, their natural habitat, which is in rapid decline. In Antarctica, scientists believe that ice sheets are melting at ever faster rates.

Correction: The original version of a photo caption misstated the location where a polar bear was photographed underwater. It was in Lancaster Sound of the Canadian Arctic, not in Alaska.

A Polar Bear dives under Ice, Admiralty Inlet, Alaska
A polar bear is photographed underwater in Lancaster Sound in the Canadian Arctic.Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen – Canadian Biologist and Wildlife Photographer

This photo of a polar bear reflected swimming underwater is probably the most popular of my images, and one I hold dear. I hope it helps people learn more about how dangerous climate change is for polar bears. Every year the Arctic Sea ice recedes further and leaves them quite literally swimming for their lives. Many of them drown as they desperately swim farther and farther in the search for food.

This is why we founded SeaLegacy as a non-profit ocean conservation with the aim to protect 20% of the oceans by 2020. If we don't create urgency, empathy and immediate action for these animals and their environments, none of these images will mean anything. We need to act, now.

NASA's Operation IceBridge Maps Changes To Antartica's Ice Mass
A section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with mountains is viewed from a window of a NASA Operation IceBridge airplane, Oct. 28, 2016.Mario Tama—Getty Images

Mario Tama – Photojournalist

I had the incredible privilege to join the NASA Operation IceBridge team for three science flights over Antarctica aboard their DC-8 airborne science laboratory. The team is studying how polar ice is evolving and was flying a set of 10-12-hour research flights over West Antarctica, departing from southern Chile, at the start of the melt season late last year.

I won't forget when one of the observers casually mentioned, as we passed one mountain top peeking through a seemingly endless sea of ice, that much of North America could have appeared this way 15,000 years ago.

To wrap your head around that is to understand the importance of the work IceBridge is doing. According to the USGS, nearly 90% of the Earth's ice mass is in Antarctica.

Scientists  photographed  a massive rift in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf,  Nov. 10, 2016, as part of NASA's IceBridge mission, a series of research flights  to study polar ice.
Scientists photographed a massive rift in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf, Nov. 10, 2016, as part of NASA's IceBridge mission, a series of research flights to study polar ice.John Sonntag—NASA

John Sontag – NASA's Operation IceBridge Mission Scientist

I took that photo while aboard NASA's DC-8 aircraft, flying over the large rift on the Larsen-C ice shelf, on Nov. 10, 2016.

We weren't the first to discover the rift (that was done by European colleagues perusing satellite data several weeks prior to our flight.) But we certainly got a good look at it, flying directly over it several times that day at low altitude.

When the outboard portion eventually breaks off completely from the ice shelf, it will form a tremendous iceberg, over 100 miles long, 20-30 miles wide, and hundreds of feet thick.

We had the rare privilege of seeing that colossal iceberg during the process of its birth.

Explorer Fridtjof Nansens follows the footsteps of  Swiss explorer Thomas Ulrich over across the polar ocean, near the North Pole in 2007.
Explorer Fridtjof Nansens follows the footsteps of Swiss explorer Thomas Ulrich crossing the polar ocean, near the North Pole, 2007.Borge Ousland

Borge Ousland – Polar Explorer

I have seen huge changes on the Polar Ocean since my first expedition to the North Pole in 1990. The ice is 30% thinner now compared to then and also cover much less areas. Hungry polar bears are becoming more aggressive when they get stuck on land with no ice around to hunt seals on.

Polar bear
A polar bear, the main predator of seals, stalks a seal hole in Frans Josef Land, the world's most northern archipelago, now designated as part of the Russian Arctic National Park.Cristina Mittermeier

Cristina Mittermeir – Photographer, Writer and Conservationist

As masters of their realm, polar bears are the most iconic species in the Arctic. If our efforts to curb climate change fall short, their numbers will continue to decline and we could face the extinction of these mighty hunters in the next 25 years.

If there is to be any hope for wildlife and biodiversity, we cannot afford to allow polar bears to slide into oblivion. My hope is that my images are more than a record of their passing and become more like a banner to rally for their protection.

An installation held at Spike Island, Bristol, UK of ten polar bears specimens
An installation held at Spike Island, Bristol, UK, of ten polar bear taxidermy specimens. Brynd’s Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson

Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson – Artists in Residence at the Anchorage Museum

The polar bear and the study of the polar bear, recreationally or scientifically, allows us mental if not physical access to what many may see as another world. Although our perception of this wilderness is in flux, the romanticism of its distance and impermeability prevails: this becomes a problem in itself.

Like the endangered, dangerous animal moving as it has from its undoubted position as the largest and potentially most dangerous land carnivore in the world to one of an icon of the fragility of nature, it is itself in a perceptual transition from that of inhospitable and dangerous place to a place that must be cared for and looked after.

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