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Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Fact Sheet: Distribution & Habitat


Current distribution

  • Ice-covered waters of the Arctic (Wiig et al. 2015)
    • Circumpolar distribution
  • Not evenly distributed throughout range on sea ice
    • Distribution in most areas varies seasonally with extent of sea ice cover and availability of prey
    • Show preference for certain sea ice characteristics (Stirling 1993) and location (near continental shelf) (Derocher 2004; Pongracz et al. 2017b)
  • Countries with polar bear populations (from Wiig et al. 2015)
    • United States
      • Alaska
    • Canada
      • Manitoba, Newfoundland, Labrador, Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Quebec, Yukon Territory, Ontario
    • Greenland/Denmark
    • Russian Federation
      • North European Russia, Siberia, Chukotka, Sakha (Yakutia), Krasnoyarsk
    • Norway (including Svalbard)
    • A few individuals occasionally reach Iceland


Primary habitat

(Wiig et al. 2015, and as noted)

  • Sea ice
    • Polar bears most common on annual sea ice fields attached to shorelines (North Polar Basin)
      • Prefer dense pack ice, in areas of high ocean productivity (over continental shelf)
    • Some occur in the permanent pack ice found in the central Arctic basin
    • Most abundant near shore (in shallow water areas) where currents increase marine productivity and keep the ice cover from becoming too consolidated in winter.
  • Land areas
    • Where sea ice melts completely in summer, bears forced onto land for several months
    • More reliant on terrestrial habitats since 1990s, in response to Arctic sea ice losses (e.g., Atwood et al. 2016; Rode et al. 2022)

Habitat needs

  • Adapted to sea ice
    • Most polar bears remain on ice year-round and spend only short periods on land
  • Hunting platform
    • Cracks and holes in sea ice give polar bears access to seals, which rest on the ice and feed in nearby waters
  • Den sites critical for cub survival
    • Most dens found near coastlines (with the exception of the Hudson Bay area)
    • Den sites may also be located on drifting pack ice

Vanishing sea ice

  • Arctic sea ice cover has declined since the 1960s due to climate change
    • Arctic region warms twice as fast as the rest of the planet
  • Sea ice loss is causing declines in a polar bear health, reproductive success, and survival
    • Young and older bears highly vulnerable
  • Also see Threats to Survival

Polar Bear Distribution

Polar bear distribution map


Map of polar bear subpopulations. All live in the Arctic.

According to IUCN fact sheet. Click here or on map for detailed distribution from IUCN.

Page Citations

Amstrup & Gardner (1994)
DeMaster & Stirling (1981)
Derocher et al (2004)
Durner et al (2006)
Stirling (1993)
Travis (1994)

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