“Much less Ice Means Extra Battle With Polar Bears” Narrative Not Backed By Scientific Proof – Watts Up With That?

From polar bear science

Susan Crockford

In another failed prediction, a new study on the number of polar bears killed in self-defense in Spitsbergen, Norway, did not find the expected correlation with a lack of sea ice or more tourists (Vongraven et al. 2023). Contrary to expectations, fewer bears were actually killed in self-defense as sea ice retreated between 1987 and 2019.

Money Quote from the abstract:

“…Ice cover had no significant impact on the odds for a [polar bear] kill.”

It seems polar bear specialist Andrew Derocher’s warning a few months ago was simply wrong:

“Poor ice conditions for polar bears this year in Svalbard. Low ice will make hunting conditions difficult in the coming spring. Time to plan for more human-bear conflicts unless conditions change.” [13 Feb 2023 tweet, my bold]

Vongraven et al. 2023, Figure 4A, number of polar bears killed in self-defense 1987-2019.

From the Discussion section of the Vongraven paper (p. 9), my boldface:

“More bears on land for longer periods of time where more humans had access to the same habitats would likely have increased the number of bear-human interactions and the number of bears killed in defense of life and property.” Despite a positive correlation between the number of tourists and the number of kills at any given time, the total number of bear kills did not increase over the course of the study and the number of kills per capita fell sharply. … This overall decline in kills, despite greatly reduced availability of sea ice habitat and more polar bears spending more time on land, may reflect the success of the Svalbard Environmental Act 2001.”

Nice rescue there, at the end. Hey this wasn’t a failure of our prediction that the loss of sea ice due to global warming would lead to more polar bears being killed because they attack humans, it’s a clear victory for a law banning humans from “visiting” polar bears ! As noted in the next two sentences:

“This law prohibits people from “attracting, tracking or otherwise visiting polar bears with the intention of disturbing them or endangering either bears or humans” (Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, 2001). These requirements can make visitors more cautious and lead to humane behavior that makes deadly human-bear conflicts less likely.”

I wonder why polar bear researchers didn’t consider this option before they started ranting about ice shortages (Abrahms et al. 2023: Atwood and Wilder 2021; Rode et al. 2022; Wilder et al. 2017)? Strange that.

I note with interest that this law does not appear to have saved the bear that died in August 2020 (the year after this study was completed). The bear that died was not responding to human harassment but was shot for killing a person sleeping in a tent in the early hours of the morning on Svalbard.

bottom line: This finding from veteran polar bear researchers puts a big hole in the emerging narrative, leading the public to expect more polar bear attacks and problematic incidents with less sea ice. They want people to forget their failed prediction from a few years ago that decreasing ice cream would mean decreasing numbers (Crockford 2917, 2019) and focus on their new boogeyman. Unfortunately, it appears that much of their new prediction is also wrong.


Abrahms, B., Carter, NH, Clark-Wolf, TJ, et al. 2023 Climate change as a global amplifier of human-wildlife conflicts. Nature Climate Change 13:224-234. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01608-5

Atwood, TC, and Wilder, JM 2021. human-polar bear interactions. In Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Sea Otters and Polar Bears, Davis, RW and Pagano, AM (eds.), p. 325-353. Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals Series, Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-66796-2_17 And the entire book for free download: https://ebin.pub/ethology-and-behavioral-ecology-of-sea-otter- and-polar-bears-3030667952-9783030667955.html

Crockford, SJ 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 will result in a population size decline of more than 30% for polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 19 January 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v1 Open Access. https://peerj.com/preprints/2737/

Crockford, SJ 2019. The polar bear disaster that never happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London. Available in paperback and e-book format.

Rode, KD, Douglas, DC, Atwood, TC, et al. 2022. Observed and predicted land-use changes by polar bears in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, 1985–2040. Global Ecology and Conservation 40:e02319. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2022.e02319 See also press release https://www.usgs.gov/news/state-news-release/without-sea-ice-more-polar-bears – spend-time-ashore-upgrade potential

Vongraven, D., Amstrup, SC, McDonald, TL, et al. 2023. Related to polar bear kills, human presence and ice conditions in Svalbard 1987-2019. bioRxiv [preprint] https://doi.org/10.1101/2023.03.17.533082

Wilder, JM, Vongraven, D, Atwood, T, et al. 2017 Polar bear attacks on humans: Impact of a changing climate. Wildlife Society Bulletin 41(3):537-547. https://doi.org/10.1002/wsb.783

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