On Thin Ice: The Changing World of Polar Bears
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.