On Thin Ice

The changing world of the polar bear.

On Thin Ice  Richard Ellis
Cover image from “On Thin Ice,” by Amanda Byrd/AlaskaStock.com.

The long-term outlook for polar bears is bleak, and anyone who reads Richard Ellis’ “On Thin Ice” (Knopf) is sure to come away with a deeper understanding of exactly why their existence is threatened. This isn’t to say that the book is a depressing recap of every disservice human beings have done to these majestic creatures.  In fact, by vividly describing the hunting and mating habits of polar bears—not to mention the ever-growing list of environmental challenges they face—Ellis makes them that much more endearing. This is no small feat, as polar bears are already one of the most-appreciated animals on earth—the icon for global warming.

Earlier this week, Failure engaged Ellis in a brief conversation about polar bears, and the book “I’ve been preparing to write for probably my entire adult life.”

What is the greatest misconception about polar bears?

The greatest misconception is that they are carnivorous man-eaters. They’re not. They are powerful and dangerous if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but polar bears do not spend time knocking over boats, chasing sled dogs, and looking for people to eat.

Rather, because polar bears are apex predators, they’re not afraid of anything. When people [whalers] first encountered polar bears, they couldn’t think of anything else to do, so they shot them. They shot them just standing there on the ice—not attacking anyone. Then the whalers made up stories about how polar bears chased them and threatened to climb aboard their ships. The bears were probably no more dangerous than curious.

How many polar bears remain?

It’s difficult to count them because they live over a vast area [Greenland, Russia, Norway, Alaska, and northern Canada], some of which is disappearing insofar as the ice is concerned. But because of advances in technology—where we can mark bears with radio collars and track them via satellite—we have a pretty good idea of how many there are. The number is somewhere around 22,000, but they are in decline everywhere.

How is the potential extinction of polar bears tied to ringed and bearded seals?

Ringed seals—also known as ice seals—are the primary food source of polar bears. Ringed seals dig dens in the ice; they don’t come on land. So if the ice disappears, the ringed seals will go too, because they won’t have anyplace to breed. And if the ringed seals go, then polar bears will be in a lot of trouble, because they won’t have anything to eat.

There are other seals in the Arctic. But bearded seals are a lot harder to capture. A full-grown ringed seal is roughly 150 pounds, and a bearded seal can average eight or nine hundred pounds. While polar bears have no problem taking down a 900 pound animal, they tend to go for what’s easiest, and ringed seals are fast food for polar bears.

In “On Thin Ice” you note that polar bears are the most heavily contaminated animals on earth. Why?

It’s because we are producing vast amounts of heavy metals, PCBs, and mercury [to name just a few chemical contaminants], much of which wafts up to the Arctic, lands on the snow and water, and is then absorbed by bacteria and ingested by the smallest animals in the food chain. The bacteria work their way into the digestive systems of small creatures, which are eaten by small fish, which are in turn eaten by larger fish, which are in turn eaten by seals. The seals are then eaten by killer whales and polar bears.

So the three apex predators of the Arctic—the polar bear, killer whales and the Eskimo—are all the most heavily contaminated of their class in the world. In the industrial south, we can avoid eating fish laced with mercury, for instance. But polar bears, killer whales, and Eskimos don’t have any choice. They can’t go to the supermarket and buy an arugula salad. They have to eat what is available.

Is the polar bear doomed?

Yes, in my opinion, the polar bear is doomed. The environment in which they live is doomed. The Arctic ice is decreasing dramatically, and the reason it is getting smaller is painfully obvious. As the ice melts, more sunlight hits the water, whereas there used to be ice reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere. As more sunlight hits more water, the water gets warmer. As the water gets warmer, it melts more ice. As more ice melts, there’s less of it to reflect sunlight.

How much time do polar bears have left?

We’re not going to be polar bear-less in 100 years, which is roughly the figure that is given for the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps. For one thing, the land that surrounds the Arctic Ocean is still going to have ice on it, and if it has ice on it, there will still be places for seals to breed and seals for polar bears to eat. But given the nature of polar bear breeding habits—they wander around looking for other bears—if there aren’t many left, it’s going to be really difficult for them to breed.

Is there anything we can do to save the polar bear?

Nope, there is nothing anyone can do to stop the melting of the polar ice. Copenhagen turned out to be a categorical failure. They came to no conclusions and nothing was done. Basically they decided to have another meeting, to talk about when they might have another meeting, to decide when to have another meeting.

What is the lesson of our experience with polar bears?

It’s a painful one, because we are losing the polar bear and everyone loves polar bears. The lesson is to learn from this experience and to pay attention, because if we can eliminate the most powerful predator in the Arctic, then nothing is safe from human carelessness.

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