On Thin Ice: The Chang­ing World of Po­lar Bears

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by Richard El­lis, Al­fred A. Knopf, 400 pages

As a lec­turer on Arc­tic wildlife aboard a Rus­sian ice­breaker headed for the North Pole in July 1994, Richard El­lis ar­rived on deck one morn­ing to find a crowd gath­ered: a po­lar bear stood on its hind legs on the ice be­low, cadg­ing bread thrown by the sailors. From that mo­ment, the bear clearly cap­ti­vated El­lis — and his new­est book cap­ti­vated me. El­lis is a nat­u­ral­ist, writer, and artist with an im­pres­sive cat­a­log of books to his credit in­clud­ing

The Book of Whales; Tuna: Love, Death, and Mer­cury;

En­cy­clo­pe­dia of the Sea; and The Empty Ocean. He is also a renowned na­ture artist and has acted as co-cu­ra­tor of ex­hibits for the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in New York.

In re­search­ing On Thin Ice, El­lis con­sulted enough ma­te­rial to fill an im­pres­sive 26-page bib­li­og­ra­phy. He spoke to ex­perts on the Arc­tic and on po­lar bears around the world. An­drew De­rocher, a bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta, Canada, whose re­search has fo­cused on the po­lar bear for the last 20 years, re­viewed an early ver­sion of the book. (This is ex­plained in the after­word, al­though it should have been noted in the in­tro­duc­tion, along with De­rocher’s cre­den­tials.) As one of the world ex­perts on po­lar bears, De­rocher’s con­tri­bu­tion lends the book con­sid­er­able weight.

Stun­ning color and black-and-white pho­to­graphs and il­lus­tra­tions add sig­nif­i­cantly to the ap­peal of On Thin Ice, but don’t ex­pect a pretty cof­feetable book. In an in­ter­view last year, El­lis said, “The po­lar bear is the first an­i­mal threat­ened by global warm­ing. ... I al­ready have all th­ese books about po­lar bears. But all of a sud­den I re­al­ized that no­body had writ­ten a book about the po­lar bear and global warm­ing.” In the in­tro­duc­tion, El­lis notes that on that 1994 trip, when the ship reached the North Pole, the ice was 10 feet thick. In Au­gust 2000, two of El­lis’ col­leagues on the trip, Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory sci­en­tists Jim McCarthy and Malcolm McKenna, re­turned to the North Pole and were shocked to find open wa­ter. De­rocher and an­other po­lar bear ex­pert, Ian Stir­ling of the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice who has been study­ing po­lar bears since the 1970’s, had al­ready pub­lished an ar­ti­cle in 1993 about the po­ten­tial neg­a­tive im­pact of global warm­ing on po­lar bears. But, El­lis writes, when McKenna and McCarthy pub­lished their sim­ple ob­ser­va­tions of open wa­ter at the North Pole, some op-ed columnists ques­tioned their cre­den­tials to ob­serve what they saw, which El­lis calls “the beginning of the de­nial of global warm­ing as the cause.”

Early Euro­pean Arc­tic ex­plo­ration and en­coun­ters with po­lar bears are told through ex­cerpts of first-hand ac­counts. I grew weary of tri­umphant scenes of slaugh­ter, though ul­ti­mately I was trans­ported into that danger­ous world of iso­la­tion, ice, and pri­va­tion. The great white bear now faces Arc­tic peo­ples with snow­mo­biles and high-pow­ered ri­fles who, in some cases, op­er­ate lu­cra­tive tro­phy-hunt­ing busi­nesses. Oil and gas drilling in po­lar bear habi­tat is a con­tin­ual threat. And, re­sid­ing at the top of the food chain, po­lar bears show signs that the sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of lit­er­ally hun­dreds of in­dus­trial pol­lu­tants found in their tis­sues are poi­son­ing their im­mune and re­pro­duc­tive sys­tems.

El­lis cov­ers the wide range of the po­lar bear, which rec­og­nizes no na­tional bound­aries while search­ing for food, mates, and shel­ter at the top of the world, and out­lines the dif­fi­cul­ties in pro­tect­ing an an­i­mal whose pop­u­la­tions strad­dle parts of five coun­tries. He is con­vinc­ing when he ar­gues that the unique and re­mark­able adap­ta­tions of the po­lar bear, which he de­scribes in de­tail, to the frozen stretches of the Arc­tic Sea may be its down­fall as the an­cient ice shelves con­tinue to split and melt — faster than pre­dicted, ac­cord­ing to re­cent news re­ports.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion of the book cre­ated some frus­trat­ing rep­e­ti­tion and seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion. I wanted a map or maps to fol­low the bears around the Arc­tic Cir­cle. I wanted sys­tem­atic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the ma­jor ex­perts, in­clud­ing their spe­cialty, cre­den­tials, and af­fil­i­a­tion. But over­all, I found this book hard to put down — un­til near the end, when the cu­mu­la­tive ev­i­dence left me feel­ing like El­lis, who said in that in­ter­view last year, “I am not an op­ti­mist.” In the after­word, El­lis says, “I write th­ese books to make peo­ple aware of what’s hap­pen­ing to their wildlife birthright; no one should be able to deny us or our grand­chil­dren the right to co-ex­ist with sharks, whales, dol­phins, tuna, or po­lar bears.” As a bi­ol­o­gist, I would add that hu­man sur­vival may de­pend on the ecosys­tems we are de­stroy­ing with th­ese threat­ened species.

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