The Reality of Polar Bears in Norway: An Evidence-Based Examination

Norway is home to polar bears on its northern territory known as the Svalbard archipelago and the surrounding Barents sea ice. They are not found in mainland Norway.

While estimates vary, there are said to be around 3000 polar bears living on Svalbard and the surrounding sea ice. However, some estimates are as low as 1000 individuals.

Polar bears are listed as vulnerable and are protected animals by law. Despite their protected status, polar bears face a number of threats, including habitat loss and the impacts of climate change. As a consequence there are no polar bear safaris, however, they are frequently sighted on arctic cruises in Svalbard.

The Mighty Polar Bear: An Icon of the Arctic

Polar bears are the largest bear species on the planet and are found in the Arctic Circle in the territories of Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway, and the United States (Alaska).

These solitary animals roam the vast ice cap around the North Pole and primarily hunt ringed and bearded seals as their main source of food. They have a distinctive white fur coat which provides excellent camouflage in the snow and a thick layer of fat up to 10 cm which helps to insulate them in the cold climate.

They prefer to stay on the ice caps, their preferred hunting grounds, but are excellent swimmers and can spend days swimming between land masses and ice caps. Due to their dependence on sea ice, they are classified as marine mammals.

Male polar bears are larger than females and can weigh between 350 to 750 kg. The species is considered vulnerable due to habitat loss caused by climate change.

In Norway, polar bears are found on the Barents sea ice and the Svalbard Archipelago, but not on the mainland.    

Polar Bears in Norway: An Overview of Population, Habitat, and Conservation

It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of polar bears in the wild due to their remote habitat, but most estimates put their numbers between 20,000 and 30,000.

This is a significant increase from the 1950s when excessive hunting caused the polar bear population to drop to as low as 5,000-10,000 individuals.

Around 3,000 polar bears are believed to live in the Norwegian territories of Svalbard and the Barents sea. If this estimate is accurate, the polar bear population in these areas would be larger than the number of humans living on Svalbard, the only landmass north of mainland Norway that is populated.

In 1973, the Norwegian government passed the Polar Bear Act, which granted protection to polar bears. As a consequence, polar bears are protected by law and allowed to move around freely within Norwegian territories. While encounters with humans do occur, polar bears rarely attack humans.

Polar bears in Norway face a number of threats, including habitat loss due to the impacts of climate change. The rapidly melting sea ice, which is essential for polar bears to hunt and breed, is a particularly significant threat to the species.

On the Hunt for Polar Bears: Where to Find Them in Norway

Polar bears are protected animals in Norway, so there are no safari or cruise options available specifically for viewing them. However, it is still possible to see polar bears in their natural habitat on boat cruises around Svalbard, which also offer the opportunity to observe other marine animals in the area.

These cruises range from one-day trips departing from Longyearbyen, the largest town on Svalbard, to longer multi-day journeys. The chances of seeing a polar bear are higher on the longer cruises, as they are rarely spotted on the shorter ones.

The best time to see polar bears is between May and August or September when the sea ice is less extensive and causes the bears to congregate on smaller land masses. Additionally, the midnight sun during this time provides longer daylight hours compared to the dark winter months.

Facing the Arctic’s Top Predator: The Risk of Polar Bear Attacks in Norway

Polar bears are the top predator in the Arctic, and while encounters with humans are rare, it is important to understand the potential risks of encountering a polar bear in Norway. These powerful animals can weigh up to 750 kg and have the strength and claws to cause serious injury or death.

There have been a total of 75 polar bear attacks recorded between 1870 and 2020, resulting in 21 fatalities. In the past decade, there have been two fatal polar bear attacks on Svalbard.

In 2011, a British student was killed while camping near Longyearbyen, and in 2020, a Dutch man died from injuries sustained in an attack at a campsite near the Longyearbyen airport. These incidents are rare due to the small human population in the Arctic region.

While most polar bears prefer to avoid humans and will typically flee when confronted, hungry or threatened bears may act aggressively. Therefore it is It is important to take safety measures when traveling in polar bear territory, which is anywhere outside the settlements on Svalbard.

Respect the bear’s habitat and give them plenty of space to avoid confrontation. In case of a confrontation, you must be equipped with suitable means of scaring off polar bears. This can include bear spray, sound horns, or flare guns. In addition, the office of the Governor of Svalbard recommends carrying firearms with you.

To ensure the best possible safety, it is recommended to bring a local guide when exploring the arctic wilderness of Svalbard.

The future of polar bears in Norway

The future of polar bears in Norway is uncertain due to the impacts of climate change on their habitat. As the Arctic region warms, sea ice is melting at an alarming rate, leading to a decline in polar bear populations.

This is especially true for polar bears in the Barents Sea region, where the loss of sea ice has led to a decrease in their primary food source, seals.

While polar bears are protected by law in Norway, it is important for conservation efforts to be strengthened in order to ensure their survival in the face of a changing environment.

Without action, the polar bear population in Norway and around the world may continue to decline, leading to the potential extinction of the species.


Polar bear spotting in the arctic – Hurtigruten

Svalbard Polar bears – WWF

Photo of author


Erik is the creator and editor of Planet Norway. Born in Trondheim and currently living in Oslo, Erik knows the ins and outs of Norwegian History, society, and culture. His idea for starting planet Norway came about when helping his foreign fiance to settle in Norway.