Although it is supposedly "common knowledge" that there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, in reality the most recent scientific survey shows there are about 270 polar bears versus only 2700 people in the archipelago. The total of roughly 3,000 polar bears often cited is for the entire Barents Sea region – including the sea ice to the north and Russian territory to the east – and Svalbard's bears are increasingly isolated from the other two groups as climate change effects accelerate.
Jon Aars, a researcher for the Norwegian Polar Institute, examines a polar bear cub and its mother during a field expedition. He was among the participants in the institute’s most recent polar bear census. Photo by Jon Aars / Norwegian Polar Institute.
It’s the biggest fib in Svalbard: "There are more polar bears than people." In reality, people outnumber bears ten to one.
Perhaps "fib" isn't quite the correct word, since people aren't deliberately spreading the falsehood far and wide. But it certainly suggests the myth's allure is more gripping than this cold, hard fact: there are more than 2,700 people and roughly 270 polar bears in Svalbard.
How is it possible one of the most famous bits of "common knowledge," uttered by seemingly every guide and visitor, is wrong on a scale of such magnitude and continues to exist after so many years?
"When we estimated the Barents Sea number to be about 2,650 bears in 2004…we refused to tell how many bears there were in Svalbard," said Jon Aars, a Norwegian Polar Institute researcher who has studied polar bears in the region for many years. "But then several people instead starting using the total 2,650 for the Barents Sea as if that was for Svalbard."
Furthermore, that figure is a mere estimate, since the count suggested there could be between 1,900-3,600. In addition, "we said that would vary a lot with season, and between years, as bears migrate between the pack ice, Franz Josef Land, and Svalbard," Aars said.
There is also, of course, considerable speculation about how climate change is affecting the population, health and migration of polar bears. But for now that's another area where myths exceed reality, with studies suggesting little effect so far in Svalbard. But that may change drastically in the future – and sooner than experts thought even a few years ago.
Three distinct bear populations
A map shows the area where the Norwegian Polar Institute conducted a polar bear census in 2015 and where animals were seen during the four-week survey. Map by the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Skipping for now past a bunch of scientific specifics and qualifiers in Aars' observations and other data, ultimately there are three different counts of the current polar bear population in the region, according to the Norwegian Polar Institute:
- About 270 polar bears within the boundaries of Svalbard itself. The population appears to have increased slightly during the past 15 years, continuing a trend since hunting of them in Svalbard was outlawed in 1973.
- About 710 polar bears on the sea ice north of Svalbard. While bears may swim to and from the archipelago, they are doing so less frequently as the loss of sea ice accelerates.
- Roughly 1,700 polar bears in the vast expanse of Russian land and sea ice to the east. This figure is less exact than the total for Norwegian territory since Russia did not participate in the most recent official population count for the Barents Sea area. While bears are known to travel between Svalbard and Russian territory, it occurs significantly less often than with bears on the northern sea ice due to the greater distances involved.
Those figures are from the institute's most recent official population survey of polar bears in the region, conducted in 2015. As with the 11-year gap between the two official surveys, Aars said it's unlikely the three populations have changed significantly as of the end of 2019.
An exact answer - that may be way off
For people inclined to be skeptical, don't worry, the scientists are way ahead of you in detailing why the above figures may be way off.
But even the wildest distortions of their data won't turn the prevailing myth about "more polar bears than people" into reality. Still, it's entirely reasonable to ask, "OK, exactly how many polar bears are there in Svalbard?"
The answer: exactly 264, scientifically speaking. Which is to say there's a 95 percent chance there's between 199 and 363 polar bears in Svalbard, and the 264 figure is their best "middle ground" estimate.
No, that’s not exactly exact – and with good reason. Before criticizing the imprecision, you try counting each of the white polar bears in a vast span of white land and sea ice, while coping with harsh storms and other problems that hindered the access and visibility during the actual count using ships and helicopters.
"We had large problems with the conditions, especially up in the ice edge," Aars told the local newspaper Svalbardposten in September of that year, after the four-week count was as complete as it was going to get. "We therefore did not quite reach our objectives with everything we intended to do. This means that we will have a more difficult job of analyzing the data, quite simply."
This large pack of polar bears that most people include in Svalbard's population is actually at a trash dump on a military settlement in the Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, many hundreds of kilometres to the east. More than 50 bears converged on the community in late 2018 and early 2019, resulting in a state of emergency and military forces patrolling the area. Photo by Russian Armed Forces.
Polar bear politics hinder the count
Besides the chilly reception from Mother Nature, scientists also got the cold shoulder from Mother Russia. The census was intended to be a joint count of the entire Barents region, but at the last minute Russia backed out of doing the count on its side for reasons never made entirely clear (although political tensions between Norway and Russia have caused other issues the past several years).
Such complications help account for the wide range in the estimates of the bear population of Svalbard, as well as the ice to the north (an estimate of 709 bears, with a 95 percent chance the real count is between 334 and 1,026). But, as noted, the 2004 survey also resulted in a wide possible range and reputable estimates of the global population range from 20,000 to 31,000.
Climate change isolating bear sub-populations
Still, even if the vast majority of the polar bears in the Barents Sea region don't call Svalbard home, do enough pay a visit from neighboring areas to make the mythical comparison to people more credible?
Again, to put things simply: no. To put things with a bit more complexity: not only that, but the rapid loss of sea ice due to climate change is increasingly isolating Svalbard's bears from others in the region since they're not swimming the great distances required.
"The most significant knowledge from this study is that Svalbard seems to host a local ecotype of the Barents Sea subpopulation of polar bears which constitute only a few hundred individuals," the conclusion of the 2015 survey notes. "These bears experience different challenges than the much higher number of bears living in the pack ice area."
Among the challenges in Svalbard are winters that are two months shorter and five degrees Celsius warmer than 50 years ago which, while similar to changes elsewhere in the Barents Sea region, has resulted in a much more significant loss of sea ice polar bears traditionally hunt from during the spring. Tourism in Svalbard has also boomed in recent years, to the point the governor has prohibited travel in some areas where bears are hunting during the past years due to numerous reports of people illegally disturbing bears by approaching them.
Svalbard bear population healthy now, threatened going forward
But while some observers insist some photos of skin-and-bones bears are indeed starving instead of ill (and are not Photoshopped, as some conspiracy theorists claim), generally both experts tracking Svalbard's bears annually and casual explorers have reported the animals seem to be well-fed. In large part, according to researchers, that's due to polar bears eating other sources of food such as bird eggs and the carcasses of beached whales – along with "new" sources including dolphins and even grass.
A Svalbard polar bear feeds on two bottle dolphin carcasses in 2014. Experts say climate change is resulting in more dolphins staying for longer periods in Svalbard, making them vulnerable as prey. Photo by Jon Aars / Norwegian Polar Institute.
"Our monitoring work indicates that (on-average) bears in the Svalbard population have not declined in condition over the last two decades – based on male body masses and fat levels," said Kit Kovacs, a biodiversity research for the Norwegian Polar Institute, in an interview after a photo of an ultra-thin female bear on an ice floe in Svalbard went viral in 2015. "We use males only because female condition is so much more variable depending on their reproductive status – whether they have no cubs, young cubs, etc."
But the population increase occurring in Svalbard since hunting ceased during the 1970s is likely to be sharply reversed as the effects of climate change continue to accelerate. The global population is expected to decrease by up to 30 percent by 2050 under current emissions scenarios and local bears are facing the biggest threats from those changes.
An ultra-thin female polar bear is spotted on an ice floe in Svalbard in 2015 by a nature photographer who claimed it was starving, likely due to hardships imposed by climate change. Some conspiracy theorists claimed the image was Photoshopped. Researchers have said polar bears in the area generally are still well-fed, but declining sea ice conditions are forcing them to find new untraditional sources of food. Photo by Kerstin Langenberger.
"The Barents Sea polar bears have experienced the fastest loss of sea-ice habitat of all the 19 recognized subpopulations in the Arctic," the 2015 census report states. "It is also predicted that the Barents Sea polar bears will experience a more profound loss of habitat in the next decades compared to most other subpopulations."
"The warming of the Arctic is predicted to continue and the loss of sea ice around Svalbard is predicted be particularly profound in coming decades. We already observe that bears who mainly live in the pack ice sometimes swim up to several days and several hundred kilometres to reach land, where they can den. Swimming in cold water is more energy-demanding than walking. A further reduction of sea ice habitat could thus be detrimental to Svalbard’s polar bears, whose livelihood depends on sea ice and sea ice-associated seals."