Bookmark and Share

Polar Bears and Climate Change

Andrew E. Derocher


A warming climate is altering sea ice conditions, which affects polar bears in many ways, including:

  • more difficulty in getting to and hunting prey
  • fewer den areas and lower cub survival
  • increased interactions between bears and humans
  • lower survival rate of the species in general

May 2008

Polar bears are the closest relatives of brown bears.

The sea ice of the Arctic Ocean and the connected frozen seas is home to the largest and most predatory of the bear family. All bears alive today evolved 22 million years ago from a common ancestor — the Ursavus of Asia. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) evolved from a group of brown bears (Ursus arctos) over 200,000 years ago, which became isolated from other brown bear populations by glaciers, possibly in Siberia. It is easy to imagine the evolutionary change in brown bears that inhabited a northern coast during a climatic cooling period, when food as tempting as unwary seal pups can be found offshore.

This polar bear cub, from the Beaufort Sea, Canada, is about 4 months old. Cubs, weighing about 10kg, were caught with their mother as part of a long-term population monitoring study.
Photograph: A. E. Derocher.

Adaptations and evolution

Polar bears evolved rapidly to adapt to their niche.

In a case of quantum evolution, polar bears evolved rapidly to exploit a vacant ecological niche as a specialized predator of seals. The rapid changes from a brown bear to a polar bear include these:

  • white-yellow fur that helps them meld into their background as they sneak up on their prey
  • claws that are catlike, an adaptation to grasp fleeing prey
  • feet that are heavily furred to provide warmth
  • smaller ears to avoid freezing in the frigid winters
  • a narrower and more elongated skull, an adaptation perhaps to warm cold inhaled air, to aid the sense of smell, or to assist with the capture of prey trying to slip through a narrow opening to the safety of the sea below
  • the ability to enter a fasting physiological state at any time of the year, unlike other bears, which enter this state only during winter torpor
  • only four mammae (unlike brown bears with six) and a smaller litter size, an adaptation to the harsh environment for raising young
Their range has been constant in the last few 100 years.

Living and dying on the sea ice is not conducive to creating a good fossil record, but polar bears existed in Europe during the last ice age, and fossil remains have been found in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and England. Polar bears were present in Scandinavia as recently as 10,660 years ago. Unlike most large carnivores, the current distribution of polar bears is similar to that of the last few hundred years. No subspecies of polar bears are recognized.

Diet and feeding strategy

Polar bears eat meat exclusively.

The lifestyle of polar bears is dramatically different from their brown bear ancestors. Despite their brief evolutionary separation, these two species exploit vastly different energy sources. Arctic brown bears are terrestrial, and most of their diet is vegetation augmented by animal protein. Polar bears, in contrast, are the most carnivorous of the bears, and two species of seals make up the bulk of their diet:

  • The ringed seal (Phoca hispida), reaching over 60 kg and the most numerous seal in the Arctic, is their main prey.
  • The larger bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), which can top 400 kg, is also commonly taken.

Both of these seals rely on sea ice to reproduce and molt, and neither species is found where sea ice is absent. Polar bears are opportunistic and will exploit food sources from both marine and terrestrial sources. Seals, however, are what make the life history of the polar bear possible.

Seals are their primary source of food.

The fat-laden seals that polar bears eat allow them to grow larger than most brown bears. Being large is an advantage for staying warm in cold climates. More importantly, during the spring and early summer, polar bears gorge themselves on naïve newborn and recently weaned seal pups and deposit a thick fat layer that allows the bears to go through extended periods without food. Seals are an abundant food source that is converted into a portable energy store. Pregnant female polar bears in Hudson Bay can fast for up to 8 months and rear offspring (usually two) to about 10 kg before returning to the sea ice to feed on seals. Bears can double, triple, or quadruple their body mass during the spring. In contrast to brown bears, only pregnant female polar bears enter dens over winter; all other polar bears brave the harsh winter conditions trying to find a few seals to stem the loss of their precious fat stores.


Polar bears need sea ice to hunt and breed.

The sea ice is a dynamic habitat that undergoes huge annual variation in distribution and character. Polar bears follow the temporal shifts in habitats to access their prey. Annual sea ice, ice that forms and then melts within a single year, is the primary habitat of polar bears and is used various ways:

  • as a platform to hunt
  • as the habitat for mating
  • for travel, migration, and connecting habitats
  • as a summer refuge
  • to den and produce young in some areas, primarily in Alaska
They travel huge distances to find food.

In response to the extreme variation in ice, female polar bears can cover huge areas in a single year, with many bears wandering over 200,000 km2 of sea ice. In contrast, brown bears use areas that are a tiny fraction of what polar bears use; a polar bear home range can be well over 1000 times that of a brown bear. In addition, the feeding strategies of polar bears are vastly different from their ancestors: Polar bears travel huge distances to exploit energy-rich foods, while Arctic brown bears move little and eke out an existence on an energy-poor diet.

There are 19 subpopulations of the species.

Polar bears can be found at low densities right up to the North Pole, but their main habitat is the nearshore annual sea ice over the continental shelf, where biological productivity and their main prey are more abundant. The southernmost limit of the bears is in the subarctic waters of James Bay, in Canada, which is at about the same latitude as London, England. For management purposes, polar bears have been divided into 19 different subpopulations based on movement patterns of adult females wearing satellite radio collars.

Changing sea ice habitat

Changes to sea ice are well documented.

The main concern about climate change effects on polar bears is habitat loss and changes to sea ice habitat. The sea ice on which polar bears depend has undergone recent declines in area, duration of cover, and thickness as a result of climate warming. Observed changes to the sea ice and habitat that may affect polar bears are these:

  • decline in maximum extent of sea ice in winter of about 1.5% per decade
  • loss of multiyear ice (permanent polar pack ice), which is declining about 10% per decade
  • increase in amount of open water
  • shortening of the period of ice cover and lengthening of the open water period
  • increase in the rate of ice drift
Changes are happening faster than expected.

Studies suggest that the sea ice is changing faster that projected, and there are concerns that the loss of sea ice may have passed a tipping point that could accelerate future declines. Climate projections and sea ice models must be viewed with some caution, but the message is clear: Polar bear habitat is changing.

Sea ice affects food sources of polar bears.

Climate induced changes to the sea ice may result in changes to the prey species available to polar bears. There are indications that harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) populations are increasing, and that harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandica) are expanding northward. These species are already prey items for some polar bear populations, but if the sea ice continues to change, we may see these species become more important to polar bears as long as the bears have a sea ice platform to hunt from. There is concern that if the ice conditions deteriorate too much, polar bears may be replaced by other top level predators, such as killer whales (Orcinus orca), which are largely excluded from ice covered seas.

Climate change effects on polar bears

Some subpopulations are in decline.

The evidence for climate change affects on polar bears is not definitive. The definitive effects will come when subpopulations disappear. The status of the various subpopulations of polar bears varies widely: Some are in decline due to climate change effects, and others are not showing any indications of change. The effects of climate change can differ in space and time, but only two or three subpopulations are monitored adequately to be able to confirm long-term trends in abundance and thus provide some insight into what may befall the species over a broader area.

The Hudson Bay subpopulation is down by 22%.

The most telling impacts of climate change on polar bears have been noted in western Hudson Bay, where declines in their body condition, reproduction, and survival have resulted in a 22% reduction in subpopulation size between 1987 and 2004. Earlier melting of the sea ice in Hudson Bay is the major driving force behind the population decline, but a continuing unsustainable harvest of seals has aggravated the situation. Earlier melting of sea ice has two consequences for polar bears: It shortens the feeding period at a time when recently weaned seal pups are available, and it lengthens the period the bears must fast with less stored fat. While polar bears are well adapted to extended fasts, there is a limit to how long they can survive without food. Females in poor condition give birth to small cubs that weigh less, and lighter cubs have lower survival rates. Over time, low survivorship to adulthood means the subpopulation will decline in number. There are data showing that polar bears in both the southern Beaufort Sea and southern Hudson Bay are also declining in condition, which is often a precursor to subpopulation declines.

Polar bears must travel greater distances now.

Two young polar bears on the coast of Hudson Bay, Canada, are waiting for the sea ice to reform so they can return to their primary habitat and resume hunting seals.
Photograph: A. E. Derocher.

A warming climate is altering sea ice conditions and affecting polar bears in other ways. Sea ice in many areas shifts with wind and water currents, and polar bears often walk against the ice flow to remain in contact with their preferred habitats. Climate warming is reducing ice thickness and extent, which may result in greater ice drift. In effect, the polar bears are on a treadmill, and we are turning up the speed. More energy used for locomotion means there is less energy available for growth and reproduction. Like deforestation in terrestrial habitats, altered sea ice dynamics can increase habitat fragmentation, making movement across the landscape more difficult.

Habitat is more fragmented.

Some examples of the expected effects of changes in sea ice are the following:

  • increased energetic costs of movement
  • altered home range size and configuration
  • altered subpopulation boundaries
  • reduced access to den areas
  • increased periods without access to prey
  • altered prey species
  • increased time spent swimming, which may chill small cubs and reduce their survival
Some bears drowned; others resorted to cannibalism.

Other events are more difficult to directly link to climate change but are consistent with predictions. Polar bears observed drowning off the coast of Alaska may have died due to the rapid northward retraction of the sea ice: More open water and greater distances between land and sea ice make it difficult for bears to find refuge. In the same area, killing and cannibalism observed among polar bears may be related to changes in sea ice conditions and lower availability of prey. Adult males appeared desperate enough to prey on other bears. Despite decades of research, such events were never recorded in the past in the Beaufort Sea, but it is consistent with a population under stress.

In some areas bears can’t get to their food.

Changing sea ice conditions are affecting the bears’ hunting abilities. In the southern Beaufort Sea, bears were observed in 2005 through 2008 digging through solid ice trying to prey on seal pups. Normally, ringed seal pups are born under snow drifts, which the bears can excavate with relative ease, but clawing through ice up to 70 cm thick is inefficient and possibly an indication of low seal availability. Seals appear to be pupping under sea ice because of altered sea ice conditions and storm events that rafted thinner ice. The long-term consequences for polar bears are unknown, but a reduction in energy intake is likely to affect many aspects of the bear’s ecology.

Some den areas may be abandoned completely.

Recently, a new study in Alaska revealed that polar bear dens on the pack ice declined from 62% between 1985 and 1994 to 37% between 1998 and 2004. This was probably a result of declines in the amount of stable old ice; increases in unconsolidated ice; lengthening of the ice-free period, which reduced the availability and quality of pack ice den habitat; and the long-term protection of denning females, which has resulted in bears with a fidelity to denning on land not being killed by hunters. As the ice continues to change, we can expect some den areas to be abandoned.

In some areas, the number of human-bear interactions is increasing. Nutritionally stressed bears that are spending more time on land are approaching settlements or hunting camps seeking food. As the sea ice continues to change and bears become increasingly stressed, further increases in interactions are expected.

The future

Can polar bears adapt to life on land?

Will polar bears just adapt to a terrestrial life without the presence of sea ice? This notion has been naïvely proposed by some. Polar bears regularly attain body masses of over 300 kg for females and 500 kg for males. In contrast, brown bears living in the Arctic right next to polar bears rarely exceed 200 kg, reflecting the meager food resources of high latitude terrestrial environments. It is an odd view of evolution that would propose that a highly specialized species with over 200,000 years of evolution could respond in decades or, at best, centuries to the projected loss of their sea ice habitat. Regardless, the niche of a terrestrial Arctic bear is already filled by the brown bear, of which the grizzly is a subspecies.

Can we predict the future for polar bears?

Predicting the future is a precarious venture, but it is clear that the sea ice habitat of polar bears is changing rapidly. Highly specialized species are particularly vulnerable to the effects of habitat loss. In summary, the expected changes in polar bears related to climate warming include these:

  • reduced access to prey species
  • reduced body condition
  • lower cub survival
  • lower reproductive rates
  • lower growth rates
  • increased intraspecific aggression
  • increased cannibalism
  • lower adult survival
  • altered movement rates
  • shifting den areas
  • shifting population boundaries
  • increased bear-human interactions
  • altered prey composition
  • reduction in population size
Lose sea ice - lose the species!

Loss of sea ice is similar to deforestation of tropical rain forests: lose the habitat and, with few exceptions, you lose the species. Unlike other species, polar bears are unlikely to do well shifting their range further north because the polar basin is deep, cold, and unproductive. Losing the productive coastal habitats would be a serious loss, but the sea ice is more than just a platform, it is the habitat of polar bears and many of the species they rely upon. From phytoplankton to fish, the sea ice is an integral part of the Arctic marine ecosystem.

Andrew E. Derocher, PhD, is concerned about the ecology, conservation, and management of large Arctic mammals, and he has spent two decades focusing on polar bears. One of his areas of interest is to understand the effects of climate change and toxic chemicals on polar bears. He is currently teaching at the University of Alberta, Canada, and he serves as chair of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group.

Polar Bears and Climate Change

Polar Bears International

News, stories, videos, educational resources, and more can be found on this site.

Climate Change Hitting the Artic Faster and Harder

This WWF article summarizes a report about the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

Read the results of a major assessment on climate variability, climate change, and increased ultraviolet radiation and their consequences on the Arctic.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Follow reports and information from the group monitoring climate change impacts around the world.

IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group

This is the official website for the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. Although some of the resources are for members, news updates and other information are accessible to all.

Bear Conservation Fund

Donations to this fund, managed by the International Association for Bear Research and Management, help polar bear conservation efforts.

Polar Bear S.O.S.

This campaign is working to get the polar bears legal protection in the U.S.

Climate Change Campaign

Click on the interactive map to find a WWF Climate Project near you and find out how you can help the project.

  • » Aaris-Sørensen, K. and Petersen, K.S. 1984. A late Weichselian find of polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps) from Denmark and reflections on the paleoenvironment. Boreas 13: 29-33.
  • » Amstrup, S.C., Stirling, I., Smith, T.S., Perham, C., and Thiemann, G.W. 2006. Recent observations of intraspecific predation and cannibalism among polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea. Polar Biology 29: 997-1002.
  • » Blystad, P., Thomsen, H., Simonsen, A., and Lie, R. 1983. Find of a nearly complete Late Weichselian bear skeleton, Ursus maritimus Phipps, at Finnøy, southwestern Norway: a preliminary report. Norsk Geologisk Tidsskrift 63: 193-197.
  • » Comiso, J.C. 2002. A rapidly declining perennial sea ice cover in the Arctic. Geophysical Research Letters 29: 1956, doi 10.1029/2002GL015650.
  • » Comiso, J.C. 2006a. Abrupt deline in the Arctic winter sea ice cover. Geophysical Research Letters 33: L18504, doi: 10.1029/2006GL027341.
  • » Comiso, J.C. 2006b. Arctic warming signals from satellite observations. Weather 61: 70-76.
  • » DeMaster, D.P., and Stirling, I. 1981. Ursus maritimus. Mammalian Species 145: 1-7.
  • » Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J., and Stirling, I. 2004. Polar bears in a warming climate. Integrative and Comparative Biology 44: 163-176.
  • » Derocher, A.E., and Stirling, I. 1995. Temporal variation in reproduction and body mass of polar bears in western Hudson Bay. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73: 1657-1665.
  • » Derocher, A.E., Wiig, Ø., and Andersen, M. 2002. Diet composition of polar bears in Svalbard and the western Barents Sea. Polar Biology 25: 448-452.
  • » Derocher, A.E., and Wiig, Ø. 2002. Postnatal growth in body length and mass of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) at Svalbard. Journal of Zoology 256: 343-349.
  • » Etkin, D.A. 1990. Greenhouse warming: consequences for arctic climate. Journal of Cold Regions Engineering 4: 54-66.
  • » Gagnon, A.S., and Gough, W.A. 2005. Trends in the dates of ice freeze-up and breakup over Hudson Bay, Canada. Arctic 58: 370-382.
  • » Garner, G.W., Knick, S.T., and Douglas, D.C. 1991. Seasonal movements of adult female polar bears in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. International Conference on Bear Biology and Management 8: 219-226.
  • » Håkansson, S. 1974. University of Lund radiocarbon dates VII. Radiocarbon 16: 307-330.
  • » Håkansson, S. 1976. University of Lund radiocarbon dates IX. Radiocarbon 18: 290-320.
  • » Heaton, T.H., Talbot, S.L., and Shields, G.F. 1996. An ice age refugium for large mammals in the Alexander Archipelago, Southeastern Alaska. Quaternary Research 46: 186-192.
  • » IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group 2006. In Polar bears: Proceedings of the 14th Working Meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, Edited by J. Aars, N.J. Lunn, and A.E. Derocher. Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, UK: IUCN.
  • » Kingsley, M.C.S., Nagy, J.A., and Reynolds, H.V. 1988. Growth in length and weight of northern brown bears: Differences between sexes and populations. Canadian Journal of Zoology 66: 981-986.
  • » Kurtén, B. 1964. The evolution of the polar bear, Ursus maritimus Phipps. Acta Zoologica Fennica 108: 1-30.
  • » Lindsay, R.W., and Zhang, J. 2005. The thinning of Arctic sea ice, 1988-2003: Have we passed a tipping point? Journal of Climate 18: 4879-4894.
  • » Mauritzen, M., Derocher, A.E., and Wiig, Ø. 2001. Space-use strategies of female polar bears in a dynamic sea ice habitat. Canadian Journal of Zoology 79: 1704-1713.
  • » Monnett, C., and Gleason, J.S. 2006. Observations of mortality associated with extended open-water swimming by polar bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea. Polar Biology 29: 681-687.
  • » Parkinson, C.L. 2000. Variability of Arctic sea ice: The view from space, an 18-year record. Arctic 53: 341-358.
  • » Regehr, E.V., Amstrup, S.C., and Stirling, I. 2007. Polar bear population status in the southern Beaufort Sea. USGS Alaska Science Center, Anchorage, Open File Report 2006-1337, 55 pp.
  • » Regehr, E.V., Lunn, N.J., Amstrup, S.C., and Stirling, I. 2007. Survival and population size of polar bears in western Hudson Bay in relation to earlier sea ice breakup. Journal of Wildlife Management 71: 2673-2683.
  • » Smith, T.G. 1980. Polar bear predation of ringed and bearded seals in the land-fast sea ice habitat. Canadian Journal of Zoology 58: 2201-2209.
  • » Stanley, S.M. 1979. Macroevolution, pattern and process. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co.
  • » Stirling, I., and Derocher, A.E. 1993. Possible impacts of climatic warming on polar bears. Arctic 46: 240-245.
  • » Stirling, I., and Parkinson, C.L. 2006. Possible effects of climate warming on selected populations of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic 59: 261-275.
  • » Stirling, I., Lunn, N.J., and Iacozza, J. 1999. Long-term trends in the population ecology of polar bears in western Hudson Bay in relation to climate change. Arctic 52: 294-306.
  • » Stirling, I., Richardson, E. Thiemann, G.W., and Derocher, A.E. 2008. Unusual predation attempts of polar bears on ringed seals in the southern Beaufort Sea: Possible significance of changing spring ice conditions. Arctic 61: 14-22.
  • » Stroeve, J., Holland, M.M., Meier, W., Scambos, T., and Serreze, M. 2007. Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast. Geophysical Research Letters 34: L09501, doi: 10.1029/2007GL029703.
  • » Talbot, S.L., and Shields, G.F. 1996a. A phylogeny of the bears (Ursidae) inferred from complete sequences of three mitochondrial genes. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 5: 567-575.
  • » Talbot, S.L., and Shields, G.F. 1996b. Phylogeography of brown bear (Ursus arctos) of Alaska and paraphyly within the Ursidae. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 5: 477-494.
  • » Wadhams, P., and Davis, N.R. 2000. Further evidence of ice thinning in the Arctic. Geophysical Research Letters 27: 3973-3976. Watts, P.D., and Hansen, S.E. 1987. Cyclic starvation as a reproductive strategy in the polar bear. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 57: 305-318.


Understanding Science