Svalbard Norway Now Has More Polar Bear Habitat Than Two Decades Ago

  • Date: 02/03/20
  • Susan Crockford, Polar Bear Science

Sea ice around Svalbard, Norway at the end of February 2020 is way above average, as the graph below shows – with more polar bear habitat now than there has been in two decades.

Svalbard ice extent 2020 Feb 28 graph_NIS

Some comparison charts below show that the graph above includes some very high ice years in the 1980s (reaching that dotted line above the mean) for which only global charts are available.

However, contrary to suggestions that more Svalbard ice is better for polar bears, there is no evidence that low extent of sea ice habitat in winter or summer over the last two decades harmed polar bear health, reproductive performance, or abundance. In fact, polar bear numbers in 2015 were 42% higher than they were in 2004 (although not a significant increase, statistically speaking) and most bears were found to be in excellent condition.

Svalbard polar bear_Aars August 2015-NP058930_press release

This suggests a return to more extensive ice to the Svalbard region in winter will have little impact on the health of the entire Barents Sea subpopulation, although it might change where pregnant females are able to make their maternity dens if ice forms early enough in the fall. In other words, the population should continue to grow as it has been doing since the bears were protected by international treaty in 1973.

Svalbard_Nordaustlandet_Wikipedia

After substantial thick ice persisted into July last summer, at 28 February 2020 Svalbard is virtually surrounded by ice, as is Bear Island to the south (that little patch of grey at the bottom, surround by green and yellow) – the presence of pack ice invariably brings polar bears to Bear Island. There is substantial ice off the west coast (giving polar bears easy access to settlements there) and very close drift ice (red, 9/10-10/10 coverage) is dominant at both north and south ends, which was not true even twenty years ago, as I show below.

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