How many polar bears are there in Svalbard? Myths & Facts

How many polar bears are there in Svalbard? Myths & Facts

Scientific facts for Svalbard and the Barents Sea

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Svalbard polar bear (Ursus maritimus) on Visingøya Island in Murchisonfjorden, Hinlopen Strait

Polar bears in Svalbard: myth versus reality

How many polar bears are there in Svalbard? When answering this question, such different sizes can be found online that the reader is dizzy: 300 polar bears, 1000 polar bears and 2600 polar bears - anything seems possible. It is often said that there are 3000 polar bears in Spitsbergen. A well-known cruise company writes: “According to the Norwegian Polar Institute, Svalbard’s polar bear population is currently 3500 animals.”

Careless errors, translation errors, wishful thinking and the unfortunately still widespread copy-and-paste mentality are likely to be the cause of this mess. Fantastic statements meet sober balance sheets.

Every myth contains a grain of truth, but which number is the right one? Here you can find out why the most common myths are not true and how many polar bears there really are in Svalbard.


5. Outlook: Are there fewer polar bears in Svalbard than before?
-> Positive balance and critical outlook
6. Variables: Why is the data not more accurate?
-> Problems counting polar bears
7. Science: How do you count polar bears?
->How scientists count and value
8. Tourism: Where do tourists see polar bears in Svalbard?
-> Citizen Science through tourists

Svalbard travel guide • Animals of the Arctic • Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) • How many polar bears in Svalbard? • Watch polar bears in Svalbard

Myth 1: There are more polar bears than people in Svalbard

Although this statement can be read regularly online, it is still not correct. Although most of the islands in the Svalbard archipelago are uninhabited, so many small islands actually and logically have more polar bears than residents, this does not apply to the main island of Svalbard or the entire archipelago.

Around 2500 to 3000 people live on the island of Spitsbergen. Most of them live in Longyearbyen, the so-called northernmost city in the world. Statistics Norway gives the inhabitants of Svalbard for the first of January 2021: According to this, the Svalbard settlements of Longyearbyen, Ny-Alesund, Barentsburg and Pyramiden together had exactly 2.859 inhabitants.

Stop. Aren't there more polar bears than people in Spitsbergen? If you are asking yourself this question, then you have probably heard or read that around 3000 polar bears live on Svalbard. If that were the case, you would of course be right, but that too is a myth.

Finding: There are no more polar bears than people living in Svalbard.

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Myth 2: There are 3000 polar bears in Svalbard

This number persists. However, anyone who looks at scientific publications quickly realizes that this is a wording error. The number of around 3000 polar bears applies to the entire Barents Sea area, not to the Svalbard archipelago and certainly not just to the main island of Spitsbergen.

Under Ursus maritimus (Europe assessment) of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species can be read, for example: “ In Europe, the subpopulation of the Barents Sea (Norway and Russian Federation) is estimated at approximately 3.000 individuals.”

The Barents Sea is a marginal sea of ​​the Arctic Ocean. The Barents Sea area includes not only Spitsbergen, the rest of the Svalbard Archipelago and the pack ice region north of Spitsbergen, but also Franz Joseph Land and Russian pack ice regions. Polar bears occasionally migrate across the pack ice, but the further the distance, the less likely an exchange becomes. Transferring the entire Barents Sea polar bear population 1:1 to Svalbard is simply incorrect.

Finding: There are around 3000 polar bears in the Barents Sea area.

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Numbers: How many polar bears are there really in Svalbard?

In fact, only about 300 polar bears live within the boundaries of the Svalbard archipelago, about ten percent of the often cited 3000 polar bears. These in turn do not all live on the main island of Spitsbergen, but are spread across several islands in the archipelago. So there are significantly fewer polar bears on Svalbard than some websites would have you believe. Nevertheless, tourists have very good opportunities Watching polar bears in Svalbard.

Finding: There are around 300 polar bears in the Svalbard archipelago, which also includes the main island of Spitsbergen.

In addition to the approximately 300 polar bears within Svalbard's borders, there are also polar bears in the pack ice region north of Svalbard. The number of these polar bears in the northern pack ice is estimated at around 700 polar bears. If you add both values ​​together, it becomes understandable why some sources give the number of 1000 polar bears for Svalbard.

Finding: Around 1000 polar bears live in the region around Spitsbergen (Svalbard + northern pack ice).

Not precise enough for you? Not us either. In the next section you will find out exactly how many polar bears there are in Svalbard and the Barents Sea according to scientific publications.

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Facts: How many polar bears live in Svalbard?

There were two large-scale polar bear counts in Svalbard in 2004 and 2015: each from August 01st to August 31st. In both years, the islands of the Svalbard archipelago and the northern pack ice region were searched by ship and helicopter.

The 2015 census showed that 264 polar bears live in Svalbard. However, to properly understand this number, you need to know how scientists express themselves. If you read the associated publication, it says “264 (95% CI = 199 – 363) bears”. This means that the number 264, which sounds so precise, is not an exact figure at all, but the average of an estimate that has a probability of 95% being correct.

Finding: In August 2015, to put it scientifically correctly, there was a probability of 95 percent that there were between 199 and 363 polar bears within the boundaries of the Svalbard Archipelago. The average is 264 polar bears for Svalbard.

These are the facts. It doesn't get any more precise than that. The same applies to the polar bears in the northern pack ice. The average of 709 polar bears has been published. If you look at the full information in the scientific publication, the actual number sounds a little more variable.

Finding: In August 2015, with a probability of 95 percent, there were between 533 and 1389 polar bears in the entire region around Spitsbergen (Svalbard + northern pack ice region). The average results in a total of 973 polar bears.

Overview of the scientific data:
264 (95% CI = 199 – 363) polar bears in Svalbard (count: August 2015)
709 (95% CI = 334 – 1026) polar bears in the northern pack ice (count: August 2015)
973 (95% CI = 533 – 1389) polar bears total number Svalbard + northern pack ice (count: August 2015)
Source: The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea (J. Aars et. al, 2017)

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Facts: How many polar bears are there in the Barents Sea?

In 2004, the polar bear count was expanded to include Franz Josef Land and Russian pack ice areas in addition to Svalbard. This made it possible to estimate the total polar bear population in the Barents Sea. Unfortunately, the Russian authorities did not grant permission for 2015, so the Russian part of the distribution area could not be examined again.

The last data regarding the entire polar bear subpopulation in the Barents Sea comes from 2004: the published average is 2644 polar bears.

Finding: With 95 percent probability, the subpopulation of the Barents Sea in August 2004 comprised between 1899 and 3592 polar bears. The mean of 2644 polar bears for the Barents Sea is given.

It is now clear where the high numbers for Svalbard circulating on the Internet come from. As already mentioned, some authors incorrectly transfer the figure for the entire Barents Sea to Svalbard 1:1. In addition, the average of around 2600 polar bears is often generously rounded to 3000 animals. Sometimes even the highest number of the Barents Sea estimate (3592 polar bears) is given, so that suddenly a fantastic 3500 or 3600 polar bears are noted for Svalbard.

Overview of the scientific data:
2644 (95% CI = 1899 – 3592) polar bear subpopulation of the Barents Sea (census: August 2004)
Source: Estimation of subpopulation size of polar bears in the Barents Sea (J. Aars et. al 2009)

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How many polar bears are there in the world?

To make the whole thing clear, the data situation for the polar bear population worldwide should also be briefly mentioned. First of all, it is interesting to know that there are 19 polar bear subpopulations worldwide. One of them lives in the Barents Sea area, which also includes Spitsbergen.

Under Ursus maritimus The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015 It is written: “Summing the latest estimates for the 19 subpopulations […] results in a total of approximately 26.000 polar bears (95% CI = 22.000 –31.000).”

It is assumed here that there are a total of between 22.000 and 31.000 polar bears on earth. The average global population is 26.000 polar bears. However, for some subpopulations the data situation is poor and the subpopulation of the Arctic Basin is not recorded at all. For this reason, the number must be understood as a very rough estimate.

Finding: There are 19 polar bear subpopulations worldwide. There is little data available for some subpopulations. Based on available data, it is estimated that there are approximately 22.000 to 31.000 polar bears worldwide.

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Svalbard travel guide • Animals of the Arctic • Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) • How many polar bears in Svalbard? • Watch polar bears in Svalbard

Outlook: Are there fewer polar bears in Svalbard than before?

Due to heavy hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries, the polar bear population in Svalbard initially declined drastically. It was not until 1973 that the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was signed. From then on, the polar bear was protected in Norwegian areas. The population then recovered significantly and grew, especially until the 1980s. For this reason, there are even more polar bears in Svalbard today than there used to be.

Finding: Polar bears have not been allowed to be hunted in Norwegian areas since 1973. That's why the population has recovered and there are now more polar bears in Svalbard than before.

If you compare the results for the polar bear population in Svalbard in 2004 with 2015, the number also appears to have increased slightly during this period. However, the increase was not significant.

Overview of the scientific data:
Svalbard: 264 polar bears (2015) versus 241 polar bears (2004)
Northern pack ice: 709 polar bears (2015) versus 444 polar bears (2004)
Svalbard + pack ice: 973 polar bears (2015) versus 685 polar bears (2004)
Source: The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea (J. Aars et. al, 2017)

There are now fears that the polar bear population in Svalbard will decline again. The new enemy is global warming. Barents Sea polar bears are experiencing the fastest loss of sea ice habitat of all 19 recognized subpopulations in the Arctic (Laidre et al. 2015; Stern & Laidre 2016). Fortunately, during the census in August 2015 there was no evidence that this had already led to a reduction in the population size.

Findings: It remains to be seen whether or when the number of polar bears in Svalbard will shrink due to global warming. It is known that sea ice is declining particularly rapidly in the Barents Sea, but in 2015 no reduction in polar bear numbers was detected.

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Svalbard travel guide • Animals of the Arctic • Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) • How many polar bears in Svalbard? • Watch polar bears in Svalbard

Variables: Why isn't the data more accurate?

In fact, counting polar bears is not that easy. Why? On the one hand, you should never forget that polar bears are impressive hunters who would also attack people. Particular caution and a generous distance are always required. Above all, polar bears are well camouflaged and the area is huge, often confusing and sometimes difficult to access. Polar bears are often found in low densities in remote habitats, making censuses in such areas expensive and ineffective. Added to this are the unpredictable weather conditions of the High Arctic.

Despite all the efforts of scientists, the number of polar bears could never be precisely determined. The total number of polar bears is not counted, but a calculated value from recorded data, variables and probabilities. Because the effort is so great, it is not counted often and the data quickly becomes outdated. The question of how many polar bears there are in Spitsbergen remains only vaguely answered, despite the exact numbers.

Realization: Counting polar bears is difficult. Polar bear numbers are an estimate based on scientific data. The last major published count took place in August 2015 and is therefore already out of date. (as of August 2023)

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Science: How do you count polar bears?

The following explanation gives you a little insight into the scientific working methods during the polar bear census in Svalbard in 2015 (J. Aars et. al, 2019). Please note that the methods are presented in a very simplified manner and the information is by no means exhaustive. The point is simply to give an idea of ​​how complex the path is to obtain the estimates given above.

1. Total Count = Real Numbers
In easily manageable areas, the complete number of animals is recorded by the scientists through actual counting. This is possible, for example, on very small islands or on flat, easily visible bank areas. In 2015, scientists personally counted 45 polar bears in Svalbard. 23 other polar bears were observed and reported by other people in Svalbard and the scientists were able to prove that these polar bears had not already been counted by them. In addition, there were 4 polar bears that no one observed live, but who were wearing satellite collars. This showed that they were in the study area at the time of the count. A total of 68 polar bears were counted using this method within the boundaries of the Svalbard Archipelago.
2. Line Transects = Real Numbers + Estimate
Lines are set at certain distances and flown by helicopter. All polar bears spotted along the way are counted. It is also noted how far they were from the previously defined line. From this data, the scientists can then estimate or calculate how many polar bears there are in the area.
During the count, 100 individual polar bears, 14 mothers with one cub and 11 mothers with two cubs were discovered. The maximum vertical distance was 2696 meters. The scientists know that bears on land have a higher chance of being detected than bears in pack ice and adjust the number accordingly. Using this method, 161 polar bears were counted. However, according to their calculations, the scientists gave the total estimate for the areas covered by line transects as 674 (95% CI = 432 – 1053) polar bears.
3. Auxiliary variables = estimate based on previous data
Due to poor weather conditions, counting was not possible in some areas as planned. A common reason is, for example, thick fog. For this reason, it was necessary to estimate how many polar bears would have been discovered if the count had taken place. In this case, satellite telemetry locations of polar bears equipped with a transmitter were used as an auxiliary variable. A ratio estimator was used to calculate how many polar bears would probably have been found.

Finding: Total count in limited areas + count & estimate in large areas via line transects + estimate using auxiliary variables for areas where it was not possible to count = total number of polar bears

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Svalbard travel guide • Animals of the Arctic • Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) • How many polar bears in Svalbard? • Watch polar bears in Svalbard

Where do tourists see polar bears in Svalbard?

Although there are fewer polar bears in Svalbard than many websites incorrectly state, the Svalbard archipelago is still an excellent location for polar bear safaris. Especially on a longer boat trip in Svalbard, tourists have the best chance of actually observing polar bears in the wild.

According to a study by the Norwegian Polar Institute in Svalbard from 2005 to 2018, most polar bears were spotted in the northwest of the main island of Spitsbergen: especially around the Raudfjord. Other areas with high sighting rates were the north of the island of Nordaustlandet Hinlopen Street as well as the Barentsøya Island. Contrary to the expectations of many tourists, 65% of all polar bear sightings took place in areas without ice cover. (O. Bengtsson, 2021)

Personal experience: Within twelve days Cruise on the Sea Spirit in Svalbard, AGE™ was able to observe nine polar bears in August 2023. Despite an intensive search, we didn't find a single polar bear on the main island of Spitsbergen. Not even in the well-known Raudfjord. Nature remains nature and the High Arctic is not a zoo. In the Hinlopen Strait we were rewarded for our patience: within three days we saw eight polar bears on different islands. On the island of Barentsøya we discovered polar bear number 9. We saw most of the polar bears on rocky terrain, one in green grass, two in the snow and one on an icy coast.

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Svalbard travel guide • Animals of the Arctic • Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) • How many polar bears in Svalbard? • Watch polar bears in Svalbard

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Source for: How many polar bears are there in Svalbard?

Source reference for text research

Aars, Jon et. al (2017) , The number and distribution of polar bears in the western Barents Sea. Retrieved on October 02.10.2023, XNUMX, from URL: https://polarresearch.net/index.php/polar/article/view/2660/6078

Aars, Jon et. al (12.01.2009/06.10.2023/XNUMX) Estimating the Barents Sea polar bear subpopulation size. [online] Retrieved on October XNUMXth, XNUMX, from URL: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2008.00228.x

Bengtsson, Olof et. al (2021) Distribution and habitat characteristics of pinnipeds and polar bears in the Svalbard Archipelago, 2005–2018. [online] Retrieved on October 06.10.2023th, XNUMX, from URL: https://polarresearch.net/index.php/polar/article/view/5326/13326

Hurtigruten Expeditions (n.d.) Polar Bears. The King of Ice – Polar Bears on Spitsbergen. [online] Retrieved on October 02.10.2023nd, XNUMX, from URL: https://www.hurtigruten.com/de-de/expeditions/inspiration/eisbaren/

Statistics Norway (04.05.2021) Kvinner inntar Svalbard. [online] Retrieved on October 02.10.2023nd, XNUMX, from URL: https://www.ssb.no/befolkning/artikler-og-publikasjoner/kvinner-inntar-svalbard

Wiig, Ø., Aars, J., Belikov, SE and Boltunov, A. (2007) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T22823A9390963. [online] Retrieved on October 03.10.2023rd, XNUMX, from URL: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22823/9390963#population

Wiig, Ø., Amstrup, S., Atwood, T., Laidre, K., Lunn, N., Obbard, M., Regehr, E. & Thiemann, G. (2015) Ursus maritimusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T22823A14871490. [online] Retrieved on October 03.10.2023rd, XNUMX, from URL: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22823/14871490#population

Wiig, Ø., Amstrup, S., Atwood, T., Laidre, K., Lunn, N., Obbard, M., Regehr, E. & Thiemann, G. (2015) Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus). Supplementary material for Ursus maritimus Red List assessment. [pdf] Retrieved on October 03.10.2023, XNUMX, from URL: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/pdf/14871490/attachment

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