State of the Polar Bear 2021: polar bears continued to thrive

The current health and abundance of polar bears continues to be at odds with predictions that the species is suffering serious negative impacts from reduced summer sea ice blamed on human-caused climate change.

Press Release

London, 26 February: Polar bears are thriving says prominent Canadian zoologist.

In the State of the Polar Bear Report 2021, published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) ahead of International Polar Bear Day (27 February) zoologist Dr. Susan Crockford explains that while the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG) promotes the impression that polar bear population numbers are declining, the results of recent studies indicate otherwise.

Crockford further clarifies that the global population estimate used by the PBSG has not been updated since 2015, even though the results of numerous surveys have been published since then. These additions bring the global population total to almost 32,000, up from about 26,000, albeit with a wide range of potential error. This modest increase is consistent with a species recovering from low numbers brought about by overhunting that affect it before focused international protection was introduced in 1973.

In 2021, results of an aerial survey of the Chukchi Sea in 2016 generated a population estimate of 5,444 (range 3,636–8,152), about 2,500 greater than a previous survey but within its range of error. This estimate is in line with other evidence that conditions for polar bears in the area have been excellent. Results from a 2017–2018 survey of the Davis Strait subpopulation published in 2021 revealed numbers were stable, although the bears were fatter than they had been in 2005-2007, with good cub survival indicating a thriving population.

Dr. Crockford reports that there were three serious attacks by polar bears on people in 2021 but no fatalities. She explains that there were no reports of widespread starvation of bears, acts of cannibalism, or drowning deaths that might suggest bears were having trouble surviving the ice-free season. 

Dr. Crockford said: “The current health and abundance of polar bears continues to be at odds with predictions that the species is suffering serious negative impacts from reduced summer sea ice blamed on human-caused climate change.”

Key Findings

  • Recent survey results bring the average global population estimate to at least 32,000, with a wide range of potential error.
  • Results from the 2017–2018 survey of the Davis Strait subpopulation revealed numbers are stable at about 2,015 bears (range 1,603–2,588), but bears were found to have been fatter than they had been in 2005–2007, with good cub survival.
  • An aerial survey of the Chukchi Sea in 2016 generated a population estimate of 5,444 (range 3,636–8,152), about 2,500 greater than a previous survey, which plausibly reflects the excellent conditions for polar bears in this area.
  • Reports that polar bears seem to be moving from Alaska to Russia in a ‘mass exodus’ may describe a real phenomenon that reflects the excellent feeding conditions for bears in the Chukchi Sea compared to Alaska, fueled by continued increases in primary productivity across the Arctic.
  • Spring research in Svalbard, Norway in 2021 showed body condition of male polar bears was stable and litter size of family groups was the same as it had been in 1994 but lower than 2019.
  • A new paper reported that more polar bears in Svalbard seem to be killing and eating reindeer during the summer than they did during the 1970s but the phenomenon was not exclusively tied to reduced sea ice.
  • Markus Dyck, a renowned Canadian polar bear biologist, died tragically 25 April 2021 in a helicopter crash near Resolute Bay along with two crew members while doing a survey of the Lancaster Sound subpopulation for the government of Nunavut.
  • There were three serious attacks by polar bears on people in 2021 but no fatalities: Foxe Basin (Canada) in August, Svalbard (Norway) in March, and northeast Greenland in August.

Citation: Crockford, S.J. 2022. The State of the Polar Bear 2021. Global Warming Policy Foundation Note 29, London. pdf here.

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