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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 Krai
    • Svalbard, Norway
    • A few individuals occasionally reach Iceland


Primary habitat

(Wiig et al. 2015, and as noted)

  • Sea ice
    • Polar bears generally prefer areas with high ice concentrations (> 50%), shallow water over the continental shelf, and high biological productivity (Cherry et al. 2016; Lone et al. 2018)
    • Polar Bears use 4 broad ecoregions of Arctic sea ice (Amstrup et al. 2008; J.P. Whiteman, personal communication, 2023)
      • Seasonal: Hudson Bay and western Canada
        • All sea ice melts in summer, creating open water and forcing bears ashore
      • Archipelago: among the islands of northern Canada
        • Sea ice present nearly year-round
      • Divergent: northern Alaska (USA) westward through northern Russian Federation
        • Sea ice forms during winter is then carried by ocean currents towards the Convergent ecoregion, creating some open water in summer
      • Convergent: northern coasts of Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland
        • Sea ice is present nearly year-round as it both arrives on ocean currents from Divergent ecoregion and is formed locally during winter
  • Land areas
    • Where sea ice melts in summer, bears forced onto land for several months
    • Summer ice melt becoming longer and more extensive, causing more polar bears (in some areas) to spend longer time periods on land (e.g., Rode et al. 2015; Atwood et al. 2016; Pongracz and Derocher 2017; Rode et al. 2022)

Habitat needs

  • Highly adapted to sea ice and to hunting its associated prey, such as seals
    • Most polar bears remain on ice year-round and spend only short periods on land
  • Sea ice provides a hunting platform
    • Cracks and holes in sea ice give polar bears access to seals, which rest on the ice and feed in nearby waters
  • Sea ice is fundamental to food chains
    • Polar bear food chain contains seals, fish, plankton, and other animals
      • Base of this food chain: unique algae that live on the underside of sea ice (Brown et al. 2018)
  • Den sites critical for cub survival
    • Dens occur on land near coastlines (and further inland in the Hudson Bay area)
    • Dens also occur on drifting sea ice, although this is becoming less common because of sea ice loss (Olsen et al. 2017)

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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