Polar bears in Iceland
Although polar bears are not native to Iceland, polar bears do occasionally turn up in Iceland, most drifting in on icebergs from the east coast of Greenland. The following is a summary of an article by Ævar Petersen from May 2010:
There are close to 500 documented references to polar bears in Iceland through the centuries in newspaper and journal articles, natural history publications, biographies, annals, manuscripts and other sources. Other, hitherto undocumented references to polar bears no doubt lurk here and there in historical records; it must also be kept in mind that information on some polar bear sightings or encounters may be preserved only in the oral tradition. Anyone with information on sources concerning polar bears in Iceland should certainly contact the author.
Observations, frequency and distribution
In March 2010, the number of documented observations of polar bears in Iceland throughout its history totalled 289. Reference is made to 611 bears in all. These figures are somewhat inaccurate, however, as some animals may have been counted twice, and a source may merely make mention of how many bears were spotted. Bones have been unearthed four times, and there are eleven instances of bear tracks without a bear being actually seen.
Distribution of polar bear sightings in Iceland. Each point represents a single observation unless a number is specified. The point in the centre of Iceland indicates the number of observations that cannot be placed more accurately (13).
The oldest reference to a polar bear encounter is in the Book of Settlement (Landnámabók), where it states that Ingimundr the Old, who settled the Vatnsdalur Valley, came across a female bear and her two cubs at a lake now known as Húnavatn or Cub-Lake. He captured the animals alive and brought them to King Haraldr of Norway as a gift. Haraldr rewarded Ingimundr with the ship Stígandi and a cargo of wood.
This incident dates back to around 890. Early encounters with polar bears are sparsely and irregularly documented, although there are a number of descriptions worded in general terms. Place names here and there around Iceland are topographical evidence of early polar bear sightings not documented in writing. Polar bear skins were common in Icelandic churches prior to the Reformation in 1550 (Björn Teitsson 1975), although many of these would naturally have come from Greenland. The oldest polar bear remains to have been found and dated are around 13,000 years old (Jóhannes Áskelsson 1938), demonstrating that polar bears have come to Iceland since long before its settlement.
Annals are the main source of historical data on polar bear observations. While medieval polar bear sightings are only sporadically recorded, data on polar bear observations is likely more or less continuous from the 18th century to the present day, particularly after the founding of regular newspapers in the 19th century.
Polar bear observations have been compiled for individual districts of Iceland (Jóhannes Friðlaugsson 1935, Bragi Magnússon 1994, Jónas Halldórsson 1973). Comprehensive surveys of the country as a whole are fewer and farther between (Ævar Petersen & Þórir Haraldsson 1993). The author is aware of two individuals who have been tireless in collecting accounts of polar bears that have come to Iceland, Þórir Haraldsson in Akureyri and Einar Vilhjálmsson from Seyðisfjörður.
Frequency of polar bear observations from the time of Iceland's settlement in the 9th century. Light blue columns show the number of observations, while dark blue columns indicate the number of animals.
The actual frequency at which polar bears arrive to Iceland can only be assessed with any accuracy for the last 2-3 centuries. Polar bears have been sighted an average of every other year for the period from 1951 to the present day. The frequency of polar bear arrivals spiked during the second half of the 19th century, when bears arrived 2-3 times a year on average. An average of 1-2 bears have arrived in each instance from the middle of the 18th century to the present. The average for the first half of the 18th century, however, is over 5 in each instance. The number of polar bears to arrive over the course of a given year varies greatly, and annual fluctuations are considerable. Some years, scores of bears have arrived in Iceland: 1274 (22); 1275 (27); 1621 (25); 1745 (39); 1881 (73); 1918 (30). Other years, none. The vast majority of documented references to polar bears come from the 19th century (120 observations, 218 animals). It must be kept in mind, however, that data on previous centuries is lacking.
Pack ice is clearly a major factor in determining whether polar bears come to Iceland. The distribution of polar bear observations on land is well in keeping with the distribution of pack ice around Iceland, from the West Fjords and along the northern and eastern coast all the way to the country's southeast edge. Today, pack ice typically drifts first to the West Fjords, then disperses eastwards along Iceland's northern coast. It thus comes as a surprise that most polar bear observations come not from the West Fjords but rather from the north and northeast of the country: Skagafjarðarsýsla District (20); Eyjafjarðarsýsla District (17); S-Þingeyjarsýsla District (26) and N-Þingeyjarsýsla District (54). It seems not unlikely that many of these bears arrived on pack ice drifting south from Jan Mayen Island to Iceland's northeastern coast; this may have been more common in centuries past.
Tales of white bears
There are many tales of white bears and their exploits in Iceland. Many have a folkloric tone to them, and it can be difficult to distinguish between accounts of actual events and unsubstantiated rumours. Some tales are clearly tall, such as the story of the bear on the island of Grímsey that slammed its paw down so hard that it caused a spring to bubble up, alleviating a water shortage. Or the bear who chased a man over Lágheiði Moor but did not attack because of a goad the man was carrying. When the man loaned someone else his goad, the bear attacked and killed him. A similar story takes place in the setting of Kelduhverfi. In 4-5 instances, it seems almost certain that polar bears killed people – probably close to 20 in all. Stories have also been spun around hardy bear-slayers, such as Jóhann “shooter” Halldórsson from Húnavatnssýsla District, who killed a bear in the 19th century, chasing it alone in a rowboat – no one else dared join Jóhann in the hunt (Jón Thorarensen 1944, Þór Magnússon 1985). Iceland's most famous bear-slayers are likely Einar Jónsson, a farmer in Skaftafell in the 18th century, and the legendary Dýra-Steinþór (Animal-Steinþór). The account of the polar bear that appeared in the door of blacksmith Jóhann Bessason's smithy in the winter of 1881 is also famous.
Legal provisions – then and now
The oldest Icelandic law codes, Grágás and Jónsbók, include provisions on polar bear hunting and rights to the kill. Six hundred years later, a directive on hunting issued in 1849 still stipulated that polar bears could be hunted and killed whenever and wherever they were found. These provisions highlight just how dangerous Iceland's inhabitants felt these guests to be. At the same time, polar bears and their furs were considered a valuable catch – fit for a king, even. The 1849 hunting provision remained in force until 1994, when it was replaced by current legislation. This legislation protects polar bears except where they threaten the safety of humans and livestock on land. Icelandic law remains relatively vague as to what this entails, although it is clear that a polar bear may no longer be killed at sea, whether it is swimming in the water or floating on pack ice.
Are polar bears more common now in Iceland than earlier?
The killings of three polar bears in 2008 and 2010 were the subject of much attention both in Iceland and abroad. Many question the decision to shoot these strays at a time when the protection of polar bears and the possible effects of global climate change on their habitat have become an international issue. On the other hand, it is absolutely clear that polar bears cannot thrive in Iceland in the long term because of a lack of ice and an unsuitable food supply.
The suggestion has been made that polar bears are arriving more frequently in Iceland in recent years as a result of global climate change. In 2008, polar bears arrived to Iceland during the summer rather than the winter months, which many people feel to be an indication of change. Historically, most bears have come to Iceland in the winter and spring months. These were by no means the first bears to arrive in summer, however.
The frequency at which polar bears arrived over the past decade (2001-2010) was the same on average as during the previous half-century. The frequency of bear arrivals during the period 1901-1950 was twice as high, while the period 1851-1900 saw polar bear arrivals in Iceland rise to an average of 2-3 times a year. The number of animals to arrive in each instance remains relatively unchanged over the last three centuries – an average of 1-2 animals. Nothing indicates that polar bears are becoming more frequent guests to Iceland or that their arrival during the summer months is evidence of a change from earlier patterns.
After the 2008 polar bear incidents, a committee was appointed to make recommendations as to how authorities should react in the event of a polar bear coming to shore in Iceland. The committee reached the conclusion that it would be best to kill such animals, citing the following grounds for doing so: (1) the safety of humans and livestock, (2) the large polar bear population in the area from which polar bears are most likely to come (NE-Greenland) and (3) the high cost of transporting the animals back to their natural habitat. From an animal protection perspective, a fourth factor might be added to the picture – i.e., whether the animals are in poor or good condition upon their arrival. From this perspective, one might well ask whether authorities' first reaction shouldn't be tranquilise animals in order to assess their condition before making the decision to put them down or not. Wildlife protection and conservation associations abroad would likely be willing to bear the costs of transporting the animals back to their natural habitat. Iceland would then at least be making an attempt to help protect the species.
Sources (in Icelandic only)
Benedikt Gröndal 1878. Dýrafræði. Reykjavík. I-xiv+168 pp.
Bragi Magnússon 1994. Bjarndýr á Tröllaskaganum (Byggt á útvarpserindi frá 1984). Súlur 21(34): 34-40.
Björn Teitsson 1975. Bjarnfeldir í máldögum. In: Afmælisrit Björns Sigfússonar (pp. 23-46).
Ein Kristilig handbog 1555. Tr. Marteinn Einarsson.
Einar Vilhjálmsson 2001. Sjómannadagsblað Austurlands. [Handrit í Héraðsskjalasafni Austfirðinga].
Gunnlaugur Oddsen 1821. Almenn Landaskipunarfræði.
Jóhannes Áskelsson 1938. Um íslenzk dýr og jurtir frá jökultíma. Náttúrufræðingurinn 8(1): 6-7.
Jóhannes Friðlaugsson 1935. Hvítabjarnaveiðar í Þingeyjarsýslum. Eimreiðin 41(4): 388-403.
Jón Thorarensen 1944. Jóhann skytta. In: Rauðskinna V. Reykjavík (pp. 84-91). 128 pp. [Endurbirt í Rauðskinna hin nýrri (1971)].
Jónas Halldórsson 1973. Bjarndýr í Staðarbyggð. Súlur 3(5): 99-101.
Þór Magnússon 1985. Jóhann skytta og bjarndýrsveiðari. Húnvetningur 10: 25-26.
Þórir Haraldsson 1991. Af eyfirskum hvítabjörnum. Norðurslóð 13.12., 15(10): 10-11.
Þorvaldur Thoroddsen 1916-17. Árferði Íslands í þúsund ár. Hið ísl. Fræðafjelag, Kaupmannahöfn. 432 pp.
Ævar Petersen 2010. Hvítabjarnakomur á Íslandi, einkum á Norðurlandi, ásamt almennum upplýsingum. In: Þorsteinn Sæmundsson, Helgi P. Jónsson & Þórdís V. Bragadóttir (eds.). Húnvetnsk náttúra 2010. Málþing um náttúru Húnavatnssýslna á Gauksmýri 10. apríl 2010 (pp. 21-23). Náttúrustofa Norðurlands vestra NNV-2010-003. 105 pp.
Ævar Petersen & Þórir Haraldsson 1993. Komur hvítabjarna til Íslands fyrr og síðar. In: Villt íslensk spendýr (pp. 74-78). Hið ísl. Náttúrufræðifélag – Landvernd.