The Circle

Polar Bears: Facing a Changing Arctic

© Andrew Derocher

The first time I saw a polar bear, I was doing field work in the Canadian Arctic. In fact, we were visited by six bears within 24 hours as the summer sea ice broke up and bears began moving to land. I felt fortunate that three Inuit researchers were in the camp with us.

In this issue

In this issue, we highlight some of the situations unfolding across the Arctic as polar bears experience the effects of climate change.

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Steve Morello / WWF

Our changing relationship with polar bears

Save the polar bears! The media demands action to save the cuddly-looking white bears before they vanish. But as Nuiana Hardenberg and Iluuna Sørensen write, the irony is that humans are the cause of their decline. Youth are determined to help bring about a solution.

A.E. Derocher, University of Alberta, Canada

Playing the long game

Polar bears evolved from a brown, terrestrial omnivore to become a white, marine carnivore that has long thrived in the Arctic’s icy environment. But as Andrew Derocher explains, given the pace of change in the Arctic, evolution doesn’t favour this highly specialized bear of the ice.


Danielle Brigida, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Polar bears have a “refuge” in the US Arctic—for now

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain has become a haven for polar bears looking for a safe place to den with their cubs as sea ice continues to retreat. The oil and gas exploratory activities that could kill these bears have come to a halt, but as Michael Crispino explains, the threat remains.

Linking Tourism Conservation, CC,

Svalbard polar bears have proven themselves resourceful, but there are limits

The Barents Sea is home to one of the world’s 19 recognized polar bear populations. But in recent decades, sea ice has been diminishing more quickly here than anywhere else in the Arctic. As Jon Aars explains, it hasn’t yet led to population declines, but it is affecting the bears’ lives in several ways.

Brandon Laforest/WWF-Canada

Patrolling for polar bears in Whale Cove, Nunavut

In fall 2019, WWF responded to a request from the Issatik Hunters and Trappers Organization to fund a locally run polar bear patrol program in Whale Cove, Nunavut, on the western shore of Canada’s Hudson Bay. For two months every summer and fall, two patrollers work in shifts to look for bears that come too close to the community. The goal is to deter the polar bears from entering the community and avoid having to destroy those that may pose a threat to residents.

Photo: Pavel Kulemeev.

America and Russia work together during challenging times

Studying polar bears is not easy, even in ideal conditions. The Arctic is immense and remote in a way that is hard to fathom in our world of fast travel and instant communication. Research is expensive, often dangerous and takes months of planning. Eric Regehr explains how, like so many other things, research became even more difficult with COVID-19—and how teamwork kept it going.

Aleksei Volkov / WWF

Growing conflict between people and polar bears

Crumbling coasts, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels and thinning sea ice: these are the modern realities of the Arctic as it faces the climate crisis. Varvara Semenova explains how they are also increasing conflicts between people and polar bears in northeastern Russia.

WWF / Clive Tesar

Combining scientific and Indigenous knowledge to conserve polar bears

Polar bears became the poster children for climate warming because it’s easy to understand their dependence on sea ice as a platform from which to hunt their main food source: seals. But doing in-depth research on the subject in Canada is complicated. Ian Stirling explains why he thinks that to protect the bears as their situation grows more precarious, we need to go back to the formula that led to early success: cooperation between researchers and Indigenous hunters.

The Circle is a magazine produced by the WWF Global Arctic Programme. Our goal is to inform decision-makers, scientists and the interested public about Arctic environmental and development issues.
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