Home » Wild places » Arctic


Polar bear
Location: Top of the world: parts of Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Greenland & the US
Size: Approx 30 million sq km (four times the size of Australia)
Environment: Ocean, tundra, ice
Iconic species: Polar bears, 450 species of fish, 280 types of bird, 130 kinds of mammals.
People: Around 4 million

About the Arctic

The huge area at the far north of the planet is mostly ice-covered ocean and treeless frozen tundra.

It’s a place of extremes – temperatures can vary from -60°C to +20°C.

The Arctic is home to indigenous peoples as well as a vast amount of wildlife, all uniquely adapted to life in this icy landscape. But their habitat is changing – mainly because the Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

Discover how you can help protect this amazing place.

Why the Arctic matters

It’s important for lots of reasons. The Arctic is home to over 4 million people. And, of course, to one of the world’s most iconic animals – the polar bear.

Arctic sea ice acts as a huge white reflector at the top of the planet, bouncing some of the sun’s rays back into space, helping to keep the Earth at an even temperature. But the Arctic has warmed at about twice the rate of the global average over the past few decades – with many parts reaching temperatures above freezing point in the summer. As the sea ice melts, due to global warming caused by people, more of the sun’s heat is absorbed by the darker ocean – magnifying the warming effect.

The Arctic also plays a crucial role in circulating the world's ocean currents – helping move cold and warm water around the globe.

Wildlife that live in the Arctic

Threats to the Arctic

Climate change

Arctic species have evolved over many thousands of years to cope with very specific polar environments – but conditions are changing more quickly than some of those species can adapt. Warming seas are more acidic too, which is damaging for a lot of sea life.

© Martin Hartley / Catlin Arctic Survey

Sea ice loss

Arctic sea ice cover has been decreasing dramatically recently, particularly in the summer. Scientists predict there may be virtually no summer sea ice in the Arctic within a generation. That’s not just bad for polar bears and other animals that live and feed at the edge of the sea ice. It also means the Arctic is opening up for high risk shipping and possible oil and gas exploration in ways that were never possible before.

WWF ecard image polar bear

Conflict between people and wildlife

Loss of natural habitat has meant animals like the polar bear have been pushed into more contact with people in Arctic villages and towns. This can have dangerous consequences for people and bears. More shipping also increases the risks of pollution and collisions with sea life. Noise pollution from underwater seismic surveys can also disorient animals like whales and disrupt their migration.

An oil tanker, Prince William Sound, Alaska, United States.

Oil and gas exploration

There are known to be large untapped reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic – but we’re convinced the environmental risks and likely damage to this remote and precious region (and to the global climate) are too great to allow these reserves to be exploited.

Polar bear in the snow

What WWF are doing in the Arctic

Monitoring and protecting polar bears

We support researchers who fit satellite-transmitter collars on selected bears to track their movements and see how they’re adapting to the warming climate and loss of sea ice. Polar bears are top predators in their food chain, which means that they are a good indicator of the health of the ecosystem. We also help local people find ways to reduce conflict with polar bears, and we’re working with governments to develop and implement a circumpolar action plan for polar bears.

Isfjord, near Gerard de Geer Glacier, Greenland, Arctic Ocean

Protecting the Last Ice Area

The ‘Last Ice Area’ is an area of the Canadian Arctic islands and north-west Greenland where scientists predict that year-round sea ice will last longer than elsewhere in the Arctic. We're working with Inuit and local and national governments to chart a future for this area.

We believe it will be critically important for the future of globally unique ecosystems and species that depend on ice, such as polar bears and narwhals, and for the Inuit whose culture and livelihoods are linked to sea ice. We’re using the research from the Last Ice Area to inform land-use plans for Nunavut – a Canadian territory where part of the Last Ice Area is found. We’re demonstration how prioritising conservation in the region could add value. We’re also advocating part of the area to be designated a World Heritage Site.

Inuit Inukshuk ice sculpture at the Catlin Arctic Survey Ice Base

Working with governments and communities

We’re working with governments including those that participate in the Arctic Council – pressing them to fully implement the commitments they’ve made to the Arctic. We’re asking the UK government to do all they can to protect the Arctic against the worst effects of climate change and exploitation. We also work with indigenous people around the Arctic, helping them adapt to the changing environment.

Cargo ship

Polar Shipping

We’re working at the International Maritime Organisation in London to negotiate a Polar Shipping Code which will help to ensure shipping in the Arctic (and Antarctic) is as safe and environmentally responsible as possible.

Success story: 1,127 protected areas

Between 1991 and 2010, the amount of the Arctic that has some form of protected status doubled from 5.6% to 11%. There are now 1,127 protected areas in the Arctic, covering 3.5 million sq km. We’re continuing to work with Arctic governments to design and implement a pan-Arctic network of priority protected and managed areas which can respond to the challenge of change.

How you can help protect the Arctic