Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Polar Frontier

Karen Huebel (author for Columbus Zoo and Aquarium)
Barbara Brem (editor for ZooLex)

Published 17 May 2018


4850 W Powell Rd PO Box 400 Powell, OH 43065 USA
Phone: 011 614 645-3400
URL: http://www.columbuszoo.org


arctic, immersion, tundra


Family:Species:Common Name:Capacity:
Cyprinidae Notemigonus crysoleucas golden shiners
Salmonidae Oncorhynchus mykiss rainbow trout
Ursidae Ursus arctos brown bear 6
Ursidae Ursus maritimus polar bear 6
Canidae Vulpes lagopus arctic fox 4


  • 2010 Associated Builders and Contractors’ Excellence in Construction Award
  • 2010 Central Ohio Associated Builders and Contractors Eagle Award
  • 2011 AZA Exhibit Award - Top Honors


Project goals for the exhibit included: 1) designing the exhibit to be a complex and enriched environment to prevent stereotypy before it happens; 2) presenting a conservation-education message that will inspire, educate, and move guests to action; 3) supporting an increase in attendance and Zoo memberships; and 4) demonstrating fiscal responsibility and a conservation ethic in construction and operation.

Designed as an immersive habitat exhibit, the journey to Polar Frontier begins when guests come upon an old windmill structure pointing them to a new pathway that leads them to a simulated abandoned Arctic mine.

Moving into Polar Frontier, guests enter a plaza replete with themed directional signage and amenities. Guests choose their Arctic adventure from multiple pathways – indoors to the Battelle Ice Bear Outpost interpretive center; down a ramp and through a tunnel to the underwater polar bear viewing area; entering the Nationwide Polar Playground; heading to brown bear / Arctic fox viewing; or, a straight approach to the polar bear viewing deck with vistas into the polar bear yard.
Polar Frontier is approximately 3.5 hectare (8.56 acres).

The exhibit consists of two bear habitats and an Arctic fox exhibit. Both bear habitats allow for rotation of polar and brown bear species. Bear Habitat 1 consists of several enrichment areas, a multi-level pool, a waterfall, and open air and underwater viewing. Bear Habitat 2 consists of several enrichment areas, a salt water main pool, a freshwater surge pool, and two shade areas, in addition to a rockwork sea arch complete with misters, and underwater viewing.



Bear Habitat #1 (housing brown bears) is 2833 m2 (0.70 acres). Bear Habitat #2 (housing polar bears) is 5342 m2 (1.32 acres). Three exhibits comprise the Polar Frontier region complete with habitats and indoor holdings, an indoor interpretive space, gift shop, restrooms, exterior playground and food stand.

Space allocation in square meters:

Use:Indoors:Outdoors:Total Exhibit:



Design - $ 2 631 063; Construction - $ 15 207 202; Interpretive Exhibitry - $ 1 500 000; Other - $ 676 366

US 20,014,631 including 13% for design.



06 May 2010


Beginning: August 2005

  • LSS Fabrication: Aquatic Environments, Woodburn, MA, USA
  • Interpretive Design / Build: Display Dynamics, Clayton, OH, USA
  • Life Support: LaBonne Mer, Boston, MA, USA
  • Architect: PJA Architects + Landscape Architects, PS, Seattle, WA, USA
  • Rockwork Fabrication: The Nassal Company, Orlando, FL
  • General Design: URS Corporation, Columbus, OH, USA
  • Playground Design / Build: Weber Group, Sellersburg, IN, USA
  • Polar Grill Food Stand Design: WSA Studios, Columbus, OH, USA


Beginning: October 2008

  • Construction Manager: Thomas & Marker Construction Co., Columbus, OH, USA


walter.gif This is a climatic diagram for the closest weather station.



The landscape plan was developed to echo the natural tundra and taiga regions of the Arctic, providing our guests with an “out of Ohio” experience.

A sloping site and larger shrubs within the bear yards create the illusion of a vast tundra that extends for miles. The conifer timberline at the crest of the sloping yards both acts as immersive stage set for the taiga beyond the tundra and aids in hiding service area views and surrounding land uses beyond the Zoo’s property lines.

The plant list specifies the Latin names of the plants used for this exhibit.


Containment meets or exceeds the Manitoba Standards and AZA Polar Bear SSP requirements: wall and fence heights at 5m (16’-6”) and buried concrete footers along all perimeter fencing are primary barriers. Secondary containment features include hot wire on perimeter fences. An additional strand of hotwire runs in front of the perimeter fence and is connected to an alarm that is monitored 24 hours a day. Any interruption or break triggers an auto dialer that notifies Zoo security. A dedicated back-up generator automatically activates during a power outage to supply all hotwire lines and bear holding building functions.

The bear holding building is set up in a U-shape, with bedrooms and outside holding on each side, a transfer / bedroom area to allow the transfer of animals between yards, multiple heated floors, an indoor pool, and 3.6m (12-foot) high ceilings. The building includes a maternity den. A meshed security window with removable glass offers the denning mother privacy while allowing keepers to monitor the bears.

The bear yards feature dig pits for burying, boulders for perching, trees for shade, large grassed areas for sun napping, mounds for visual separation, deadfall for tearing and for hiding of enrichment items, and caves and shelters for resting, sleeping, and weather control. Eye bolts are located throughout the yard for securing enrichment items allowing for daily changes. Each yard’s pool features live fish, variable depths, and a variety of pool enhancements. Additional utilization of the yard and pools is encouraged by keeper talks throughout the day. Large windows and smell ports at each habitat encourage the bears to self-enrich through interactions with guests.

The pool in Bear Habitat 2 includes two pools. A brackish water still pool maintains water temperatures between 13° and 18°C (55 and 65 degrees F.) year-round. The surge pool is a freshwater pool with a tidal effect with various depths and moving water.



All solid doors within the bear holding building have viewing portals. Outside access into the building is achieved through two separate primary doors into safety meshed vestibules that allow an unrestricted view of the hallways from a protected vantage point.

The kitchen has multiple freezer units, security windows, and closed circuit video cameras in the halls and cub den. The food preparation area occupies the center of the building and is accessed from the meshed safety vestibule so that food and supplies are delivered without entering the bedroom hallways. Each hallway has a strategically placed mesh window for viewing and access between the animal food preparation area and the adjacent keeper aisle.

Bear bedrooms consist of filled masonry block walls, steel protected doors, and reinforced woven and crimped steel mesh walls. All interior and exterior doors have redundant locking systems. Each keeper aisle is separated by an additional four-gauge mesh safety vestibule to allow for a safety check prior to entering the next aisle. Quick release slap latches installed on the safety vestibule and hallway safety doors allow for quick egress by staff. Strategically placed mirrors allow for viewing around hallway corners, stationary close circuit cameras show the length of each hallway, and pan-tilt-zoom cameras monitor the length of both polar bear and brown bear yards.

From the keeper aisle, food is transferred via steel chutes on each bedroom mesh wall and water bowls are remotely emptied / filled. Doors are operated via remote wheels with pin holes for locks, while doors to exterior yards have additional drop pin assemblies. Push bars with ratchet systems are used on other transfer doors to prevent bears from throwing the doors. Roof access to the building with views to the brown bear and polar bear yards, provides a safe vantage point for both monitoring and providing enrichment.

The mechanical / electrical room to the building has a separate outside entry.



Public access to back areas and the holding building is restricted by 3m (ten-foot) high chain link perimeter fencing.

Public viewing into the exhibits is a combination of floor to ceiling glass, with underwater viewing in several areas, and an open air view into the brown bear yard providing olfactory stimulation for bears and humans.

The live trout provide a higher level of guest engagement when guests watch the bears dive, swim, and catch fish. After catching fish, the polar bears will often sit on the top of the underwater acrylic tunnel, allowing guests to view the bears directly overhead.

Guest amenities include a themed interactive playground, restrooms, a drinking fountain, a food venue with tables and umbrellas, an indoor gift shop, multiple seating areas throughout the area, overhead radiant heat on the main open guest viewing deck, cooling systems in the brown bear shaft and viewing gallery areas, and a fully conditioned guest space with underwater viewing. All doors into buildings and viewing areas are automatic, with vestibules into each area. The ramp to the lower level of the Outpost provides an ADA (standards for accessible design) compliant slope to the underwater viewing area.

Visitors can see an up-close view of the brown bears next to the viewing glass while they sleep.



The Battelle Ice Bear Outpost interpretive educational building houses themed games, activities, and displays. Through interpretive messaging, Polar Frontier shares the incredibly beautiful but fragile habitat of polar bears and arctic foxes with our guests. The interpretation at Polar Frontier aims at guests understanding the many ways we can all help, from changing to energy efficient light bulbs to purchasing green power.

These messages are conveyed to zoo guests through imagery, dimensional propping and theming. There are three main vehicles to carry these messages: 1) Polar Pete – a fictional character who has devoted his life to helping scientists study the fragile Arctic ecosystem; 2) Arctic Mysteries – a series of messages about changes in the environment, all caused ultimately by a changing climate – melting permafrost, receding shorelines, villages tumbling into the Arctic Ocean, animals and plants shifting their ranges as the environment warms and; 3) “We Care” messages which tell our guests how the Zoo cares for animals and their habitats in the wild and how we care for animals in our care and the environment in central Ohio.

In 2015, an interactive floor projection was added to allow guests to "jump“ into the Arctic and watch as sea ice cracks right beneath their feet!

A coin wall allows visitors to push their spare change through acrylic tracks, activating bear vocalizations. Funds are collected for conservation through this coin wall.



Staff working in Polar Frontier and when entering the bear holding building are required to follow the buddy system and maintain radio contact with the department at all times. Staff is required to read and follow an in-depth written safety manual detailing all protocols and procedures.

While protected contact is always maintained, the design places emphasis on bear choice and environment variability. The complexity of the outdoor yard and the random husbandry management style provides a non-static environment for the bears. Training times in the yard and holding are varied; keeper talks are random; and enrichment is constantly changed throughout the day.

The pools are on specially-designed filter and cleaning systems that maintain the water quality without the use of harsh chemicals.

Between two and four staff maintain the exhibit on a daily basis.



An ethogram study was conducted: Reducing Stereotypic Behavior in Polar Bears at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

An evaluation of the exhibit was conducted one year after the opening of the exhibit to assess the impact of the Polar Frontier exhibit area on guest experiences and visit outcomes.

The Education Department held a series of focus groups with middle school students from two local schools. The survey first focused on personal questions geared toward identifying student interests, and the second section addressed the students’ preference on what should or should not be included in the exhibit.



Polar Frontier utilizes a closed-loop geothermal system; has repurposed a former church building into guest interpretive center and classroom space; utilized recycled rubber mulch and substrate for the playground surface; and used reclaimed and repurposed materials for theming objects and displays.

The money from the coin wall is used for conservation.

Through its Conservation Fund, the Zoo has supported bear conservation and research in three of the five polar bear nations. The Zoo partners with Polar Bear International.





© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium


Site Plan

Site Plan

© PJA Architects + Landscape Architects, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2008


Picture Views

Picture Views

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Polar bear

Polar bear

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Brown bears

1. Brown bears

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Polar Frontier entry

2. Polar Frontier entry

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Polar playground

3. Polar playground

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Bear habitat 1 - Mineshaft public viewing

4. Bear habitat 1 - Mineshaft public viewing

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Bear habitat 1 - Mineshaft public viewing

5. Bear habitat 1 - Mineshaft public viewing

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Interpretive messaging

6. Interpretive messaging

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


View toward Interpretive Center from within polar bear habitat

7. View toward Interpretive Center from within polar bear habitat

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Close-up view and interactions

8. Close-up view and interactions

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Battelle Ice Bear Outpost interior

9. Battelle Ice Bear Outpost interior

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Unique guest experiences

10. Unique guest experiences

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Polar bear habitat

11. Polar bear habitat

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Training and enrichment

12. Training and enrichment

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Training and enrichment

13. Training and enrichment

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Water enrichment and play

14. Water enrichment and play

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


View of polar bears swimming above

15. View of polar bears swimming above

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Natural exhibit landscape

16. Natural exhibit landscape

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Habitat enrichment

17. Habitat enrichment

© Daniel J. Cox Images, 2010


Bear Habitat 2 - upper deck viewing

18. Bear Habitat 2 - upper deck viewing

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Bear Habitat 2

19. Bear Habitat 2

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Bear Habitat 2 - underwater viewing

20. Bear Habitat 2 - underwater viewing

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Bear Habitat 2 - covered upper deck guest viewing

21. Bear Habitat 2 - covered upper deck guest viewing

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Bear holding building

22. Bear holding building

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Geothermal water filtration system

23. Geothermal water filtration system

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010


Close encounters

24. Close encounters

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2010