A polar bear walks along the sea ice

Photo: Jenny Wong

Our Ice House Opens in Svalbard

By Barbara Nielsen, Senior Director of Communications



27 Jun 2023

In the remote Arctic town of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, set at 78º North, curious residents have been watching the progress of a clear dome taking shape outside the Svalbard Museum, stopping by to ask questions and find out what it's about.

From July 5-August 10, the dome will be open to the public as a free pop-up interpretive center, the Polar Bears International Ice House (Isbjørn Internasjonalt Ishus). The temporary exhibit, a joint effort with the Svalbard Museum, will expand our presence in Svalbard, where we’ve been conducting polar bear den research since 2015, working in partnership with the Norwegian Polar Institute and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Krista Wright, our executive director, recently shared her thoughts on the new project and its impact on polar bear conservation.

Polar Bears International's Ice House in Svalbard, Norway

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Q: Why did Polar Bears International decide to create a pop-up interpretive center in Longyearbyen?

While working in Svalbard on our den research, we came to realize that the town of Longyearbyen provided us with a unique opportunity to share information on polar bears, sea ice loss, and climate change with the many travelers who pass through. Every year, roughly 31,000 people visit Longyearbyen in July and August alone, spending time in the town before heading off on small cruises to see fjords, sea ice, and glaciers, as well as wildlife including Arctic foxes, walruses, beluga whales, and polar bears. 

Svalbard is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet and is rapidly losing sea ice. The Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen does an excellent job of telling the town’s story and highlighting the region’s wildlife, including some information on climate change and the region’s polar bears, which are part of the Barents Sea population. However, given that polar bears are our sole focus, and that viewing them is a major draw for Arctic travelers across the North, we felt there was an opportunity to take a deeper dive into providing information on polar bears and the threats they face, not only in Svalbard, but around the globe—and also highlighting the tangible ways that people can engage in and support their conservation So, we reached out to the museum to explore how we could complement their efforts and add to the educational information available in the town.

The idea for the center was inspired by the success of our interpretive center in Churchill, Canada, Polar Bears International House, in bringing a conservation message to visitors. Reaching tens of thousands of Arctic travelers and engaging them in climate action seemed like a natural—and important—step.

Polar Bears International Ice House in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Q: What was the outcome of the talks with the museum? How did they lead to the Ice House?

The Svalbard Museum was excited about the idea of a conservation component and more in-depth information about polar bears and climate change, so we teamed up on a temporary exhibit housed outside the museum in a portable clear dome. We’ve dubbed it the Polar Bears International Ice House. It has the distinction of being the most northern pop-up interpretive center in the world.

The idea for the dome came from one of our partners, Hilde Fålun Strøm of Hearts in the Ice. She lives in Longyearbyen and has a dome she showed us this past spring when we were there for our den study. 

Once we decided to move forward, things came together quickly. Canada Goose, a generous sponsor for over 15 years, provided funding, and two board members, Dick and Val Beck, helped support the education display.

The exhibit is being installed in the dome as we speak, and we look forward to a five-week trial summer season this year in Longyearbyen. If it’s successful, we plan to regularly open the Ice House during the tourism season and ideally expand the number of weeks we are there. 

Q: What does the Polar Bears International Ice House look like?

It’s a clear dome, shaped like an igloo, that can be moved or taken apart and stored, so when the summer season is over, we can save it for another time. The architectural firm we worked with, Lupien + Matteau, designed the interpretive display as an upside-down mobile that tells the story of polar bears, sea ice, and climate change in an engaging and dynamic way. 

The exhibit provides an understanding of the Arctic food web, the Barents Sea polar bear population, the needs of moms and cubs, the impacts of climate change, and the need to take action—all in a small space. The messaging is very similar to that of Polar Bears International House, which Lupien + Matteau also designed, but it’s geared towards this location.

Polar Bears International Ice House in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Photo: Emily Ringer / Polar Bears International

Q: Where will it be located and who will staff it?

It will be right in front of the Svalbard Museum, an architecturally beautiful building that faces towards the town center and is located in the Forskningsparken/Svalbard Research Park.

Two polar bear scientists, Dr. Louise Archer and Larissa Thelin, will be staffing it. Both of them have served as ambassadors for us in our interpretive center in Churchill and both are active researchers in Canada. They’re knowledgeable about polar bears and climate change, and also enjoy people and connect well with them.

Q: Who are the partners?

We’re fortunate to have many supportive partners. They include the Svalbard Museum, Hearts in the Ice, and the Norwegian Polar Institute. We're grateful, too, to the University Center in Svalbard and PostenBring AS, Tromsø.

Q: How has the idea been received by the town and partners?

We held a town presentation in Longyearbyen last spring to introduce ourselves and our work, and it was standing room only with lots of questions. We look forward to doing more presentations when we return for research in the spring.

Our partners have been extremely helpful and everyone seems excited. Lots of people are stopping by as it’s being built. They’re curious and supportive.

Q: Any parting thoughts?

We couldn’t be more excited. The Ice House provides us with a unique opportunity to have impactful outreach efforts on polar bears and climate change with an already interested audience. Our goal is to motivate and engage people in conservation and the actions necessary to save the Arctic ecosystem—helping to sustain the polar bears’ future and our own.