Author: Polar Bears Are 'On Thin Ice'

Polar bears are some of the most high-profile victims of global warming. They're irresistibly cute, and author Richard Ellis says they'll disappear from the wild within a hundred years as irreversible warming destroys the polar ice caps. Ellis talks to host Guy Raz about his new book, On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Next month's climate change conference in Copenhagen was supposed to produce a comprehensive treaty to reduce carbon emissions. That won't happen. President Obama has already acknowledged that he doesn't believe the U.S. Senate would ratify America's participation in the treaty at this point.

The consequences are unclear, but there is considerable evidence that Arctic polar bears will become among the most notable species to become extinct over the next century if climate change patterns are accurate.

Richard Ellis has spent a lifetime studying and writing about sharks, whales, tuna, even mythical sea creatures, but it's polar bears he's most concerned about now, and that's a subject of his latest book, "On Thin Ice." Richard Ellis joins me from our New York studios.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD ELLIS (Author, "On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear"): Thank you.

RAZ: Your book opens with your first encounter with a polar, about 15 years ago. Can you describe that?

Mr. ELLIS: I was on an icebreaker heading for the North Pole. And we had stopped at a place just north of Spitsbergen, due north of Norway and sort of halfway to the North Pole from Northern Norway, and I heard some sort of an announcement. It was about 6 o'clock in the morning.

And I ran down, and I saw people standing at the rail. And I ran over to the rail. It's cold, and I wasn't dressed for it, but anyway, I had my camera. And there was a full-grown bear standing up on his hind legs, looking at the people leaning over the rail.

RAZ: So Richard Ellis, much of your book traces early human interaction with polar bears. Not surprisingly, these were often very cruel encounters. You write in your book that from the outset, Europeans seemed to regard it as their duty to kill polar bears. And you describe one expedition led by a name named Jonas Poole near Spitsbergen, this island north of Norway. What happened?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, what happened not only with Poole, who was one of the first explorers that went north looking for a northeast or northwest passage´┐Ż

RAZ: This is in the early 17th century.

Mr. ELLIS: Yeah, I'm sorry. Whenever people got up there, and quite often, they were beset in the ice and couldn't go anywhere at all. But here they are, they're stuck in the ice, and this strange, ghost-like creature appears, and it seems to be a natural order of human behavior to shoot at it.

It wasn't threatening them. And in most cases, the bears did not threaten people, and yet they shot them as often as they could because the polar bears just stood there.

RAZ: And for many of these explorers, they survived because they actually ate polar bears. You talk about the famous explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, the first man to cross Greenland, he actually trapped his ship in Arctic ice for three years. They lived off polar bears.

Mr. ELLIS: Yes, they did. And Nansen was unique in that his pursuit, if you will, of polar bears was designed for a particular reason, namely to keep him alive.

RAZ: I was surprised to learn that scientists have found increasing levels of industrial pollutants in polar bears and actually in populations that live among them, the Inuit, for example, in Greenland. Where does it come from?

Mr. ELLIS: The toxins in the bodies of polar bears come from coal-fired power plants south of the Arctic. All this stuff is wafted up to the Arctic. It lands either on the water or on the land, and it's consumed by the entire food chain, the top of the Arctic food chain that consists of polar bears and killer whales and human beings. In other words, they eat the animals that have accumulated all these toxins. And so, polar bears are the most heavily contaminated land animals on Earth.

RAZ: Richard Ellis, scientists estimate there are just about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears left on the planet. And according to the International Union for Conservative of Nature, we have about 100 years left with the polar bear. And you have a chapter in your book titled, Is the Polar Bear Doomed? Is it?

Mr. ELLIS: Yes. The polar bear is doomed because the melting of the Arctic ice cap is not reversible. Within 50 years, it will be gone. And if it's gone, there is no place for polar bears to live. They will starve to death because what they eat is seals. And the seals live. The seals, in fact, breed on the ice cap. No ice cap, no breeding seals. No breeding seals, no food for the polar bears. No food for the polar bears, no more polar bears.

RAZ: Richard Ellis is a conservationist and the author of "On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear."

Richard Ellis, thanks for being with us.

Mr. ELLIS: Thank you.

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