Toggle Nav

Polar Bear

Overview

  • Status
    Vulnerable
  • Population
    20,000-25,000
  • Scientific Name
    Ursus maritimus
  • Weight
    800-1300 pounds
  • Length
    6-9 ft.
  • Habitats
    Arctic sea ice

Polar bears are classified as marine mammals because they spend most of their lives on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. They have a thick layer of body fat and a water-repellant coat that insulates them from the cold air and water. Considered talented swimmers, they can sustain a pace of six miles per hour by paddling with their front paws and holding their hind legs flat like a rudder.

Polar bears spend over 50 percent of their time hunting for food, but less than two percent of their hunts are successful. Their diet mainly consists of ringed and bearded seals because they need large amounts of fat to survive.

The total polar bear population is divided into 19 units or subpopulations. Of those, the latest data from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group show that 8 subpopulations are in decline and there is a high estimated risk of future decline due to climate change.

Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the U.S., across their range, under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008.

The survival and the protection of polar bear’s habitat are urgent issues for WWF.

 

Map of Polar Bear Populations

This map shows the 19 subpopulations of polar bears across the Arctic.

Polar Bear Expedition Finds Little Ice and Few Mother Bears

WWF scientists spent two weeks in April on a research expedition to the islands of Arctic Norway to study polar bears and their habitat. They gathered data on 53 bears total and placed GPS collars on seven females. 

ear tag

Why They Matter

  • Importance of polar bear

    Polar bears are at the top of the food chain and have an important role in the overall health of the marine environment. Over thousands of years, polar bears have also been an important part of the cultures and economies of Arctic peoples. Polar bears depend on sea ice for their existence and are directly impacted by climate change—serving as important indicator species.

Threats

  • Population 20,000-25,000
  • Extinction Risk Vulnerable
    1. EX
      Extinct

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN
      Endangered

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU
      Vulnerable

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

Polar Bear

The loss of sea ice habitat from climate change is the biggest threat to the survival of polar bears. Other key threats include polar bear-human conflicts, overharvesting, and industrial impacts.

Climate Change

Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform from which to hunt seals, rest and breed. Every year, the summer sea ice is decreasing in size and melting for longer periods of time. Bears must move long distances to stay with the rapidly receding ice, or in some areas come ashore when ice melts and rely on fat stores until the ice refreezes and they can go back out to hunt. Many polar bears now suffer from malnutrition and others face starvation, especially females with cubs.

Traditional prey species may be less accessible in a new sea ice environment, and seals that use the ice are also predicted to fare poorly in a warming Arctic.

Climate change is also resulting in more habitat fragmentation, creating more opportunities for oil and gas development and increased shipping.

 

Polar bear- Human Conflicts

As climate change forces polar bears to spend longer time onshore, they come in contact more often with Arctic coastal communities and others working in the Arctic. Unfortunately, these interactions sometimes end badly for both humans and bears.

Industrial impacts

In the Arctic, most industrial development has been on relatively small pieces of land. As summer sea ice retreats, a new ocean is emerging, which allows more opportunities for industrial development at sea and on larger parcels of land. At the same time, the retreating ice is resulting in more polar bears spending longer periods on land for denning. These factors combined are putting polar bears and industrial activities on a potential collision course.

Offshore petroleum installations and operations in the Arctic are expected to increase in number. This would likely affect polar bears and their habitat in many ways including:

  • contact with spilled oil would be fatal
  • an oil spill would affect the entire food chain
  • noise generated from onshore and offshore oil operations would cause disturbance

Increased Arctic shipping represents a risk to polar bears. As traffic by barges, oil tankers and cargo ships in Arctic waters increases, so do the risk of oil spills and human disturbance to polar bears.

Unsustainable Hunting

Many Arctic areas have strong polar bear management and monitoring plans. But there are a few places where unsustainable hunting appears to be happening, including unreported and illegal hunting, and hunting in areas where the subpopulation status—stable or declining—is uncertain.

 

What WWF Is Doing

As climate change forces polar bears to spend longer time onshore, they come in contact more often with Arctic communities. Unfortunately, these interactions sometimes end badly for humans and bears. In Russia and Alaska, WWF addresses this challenge by supporting local efforts to protect people and polar bears. Watch this video to learn more about the benefits of involving local people to protect polar bears.

Protecting the "Last Ice Area" of the Arctic

Scientists believe that a natural “safety net” of ice in the High Arctic of Canada and Greenland, ice covering 500,000 square miles, or twice the size of Texas, may persist longer than the ice anywhere else. Since 1992, WWF has been working with partners to sustainably preserve the rich biodiversity of this region.

Now, WWF works with local people to establish an appropriate management plan for this “Last Ice Area” in Canada and Greenland. This plan could fill many needs, such as conserving habitat for Arctic ice dependent species and protecting the cultural heritage and economic needs of local people.

Addressing climate change

WWF advocates directly for governments to recognize and mitigate the effects of climate change on polar bears. At polar bear range states meetings, WWF has successfully pushed for a statement formally recognizing the urgent need for an effective global response that will address the challenges of climate change. WWF has also successfully advocated for the creation of an international polar bear management plan.

Reducing conflict

WWF supports community projects in Alaska and Russia to prevent unintended and potentially fatal encounters between polar bears and people. Local polar bear patrol teams help keep towns and bears safe. Better lighting near public places, electric fencing, bear-proof food storage containers and warning plans for when bears enter communities all help reduce conflict. We bring Arctic communities together to share their expertise on effective non-lethal deterrence methods and advocate for deterrence tools such as pepper spray to protect both people and bears. Such methods are proving effective. For example, in northern Canada's Hudson Bay area for the first time in recent years, no polar bears were killed to protect the community during 2012.

Monitoring populations

Scientists are currently monitoring the weight and movement of polar bears in the Arctic (the U.S., Norway and Canada). WWF and partners are working to understand the impact that different threats, such as climate change and the expansion of industry in the Arctic, are having on different polar bear populations.

For many years, we have run a polar bear tracker, using data from WWF-supported researcher teams to track some of the animals by satellite. By tracking these bears, scientists can map a polar bear's range and examine how habitat use may change over time in response to changes in the sea ice. Over time this information reveals changes and adaptations. WWF also provides funding for polar bear researchers to travel to Russia and the U.S. to share and exchange scientific information about polar bears with other researchers.

Reducing industrial impacts

WWF’s goal is to ensure that whatever industrial development takes place is sustainable and that it does not damage wildlife populations and ecosystems to any great extent. We offer technical expertise on oil spill prevention and response, and we advocate for the highest development standards through national and international venues. We also collaborate with scientists, conservationists and local people in opposing oil and gas development in areas that are too valuable ecologically to expose to spill risks.

Around the Arctic, WWF is preparing sensitivity maps for areas of the Arctic, to help maritime vessels stay clear of ecologically sensitive places. We have also offered best practices for shipping in the Arctic, and continue to work at the International Maritime Organization on a polar code that would make Arctic shipping safer.

Projects

  • WWF and The Coca-Cola Company Team Up to Protect Polar Bears

    WWF and The Coca-Cola Company are working to protect the Arctic. Building upon Coca-Cola’s support, since 2007, of WWF’s efforts to protect polar bears, together we are working to raise widespread awareness and funds to help protect the polar bear and its habitat.

Related Species

xHelp Improve this Site

Just 20 minutes of your time can help improve this site. By participating in a quick activity, you can help us make worldwildlife.org even better.

Start SurveyClose this box