Polar bears live in and around the ice-covered waters of the Arctic, spending a lot of their time near the edge of the sea ice, where they're most likely to find food. There are polar bears in Greenland, Svalbard (Norway), northern Canada, Alaska (US) and Russia.
The Latin name for polar bears, Ursus maritimus, means ‘sea bear’, which reflects the fact that they spend most of their life in or around water. They're excellent swimmers, using front paws like oars and hind ones like a rudder.
Polar bears move from place to place depending on the shifting of the sea ice. As the Arctic ice cap melts in the summer, some bears follow the retreating ice to stay close to seals and other prey. Others become stranded and spend their summers on land, living off stored body fat. When the ice returns in the autumn, the bears go back to the sea ice again.
There are an estimated 20,000-25,000 wild polar bears in the world, living in 19 sub-populations. There's a fair amount of overlap with these different groups, and the genetic differences between them are small.
The polar bear is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The US government recently listed it as a threatened species under their Endangered Species Act, citing the risk of the polar bear eventually becoming extinct due to the melting of its sea ice habitat.
Why polar bears need help
Climate change is the biggest threat to the polar bear, as it's affecting the Arctic sea ice that many polar bears need in order to hunt for food and raise their young.
Polar bears eat most of their food (mainly seals) while on the sea ice during spring and early summer. So getting access to enough food at this time is vital.
But because of climate change, the sea ice is melting earlier and forming later each year. This means the bears are fasting for longer - dramatically reducing their body weight and physical condition and making it harder for them to survive the summer season.
The dwindling sea ice, and increasing human activity in the Arctic, also means hungry bears are spending more time on land and are more likely to come into conflict with people. As things get worse, many polar bears face serious challenges to their survival
More industrial activities in the Arctic, including oil and gas exploration, mean a deterioration of the polar bear’s remaining fragile habitat.
And because there's no proven technology to combat oil spills in ice-covered water, a large oil spill in the Arctic could devastate the marine environment there.
High levels of toxins from oil in the sea would accumulate in the fat of the bears, as top predators in the food chain. As well as causing potential problems with reproduction and development, absorbing large quantities of these substances can reduce the insulating properties of their fur, cause hair loss, and irritate skin and eyes. Ingesting oil and toxic chemicals can lead to brain damage, kidney failure and other serious health issues.
What WWF is doing - and how you can help
What we're working for is a healthy Arctic environment with undisturbed ecosystems and healthy populations of wildlife.
We do this in two ways: the first is to tackle climate change – the most important step to protect polar bears is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible in part for the melting of the polar bears’ sea ice habitat.
Our second approach is to address the direct threats from shipping, fishing, and oil and gas activities, particularly in the Norwegian and Russian Arctic regions of the Barents Sea.
We're working with others there to maintain, protect and restore the rich marine ecosystems. We're helping develop a long-term vision for Arctic biodiversity to secure the future of this precious and fragile environment.