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The Changing World of the Polar Bear

Written by Richard EllisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Richard Ellis


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: November 17, 2009
Pages: 416 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27302-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Polar bears—fierce and majestic—have captivated us for centuries. Feared by explorers, revered by the Inuit, and beloved by zoo goers everywhere, they are a symbol for the harsh beauty and muscular grace of the Arctic. But as global warming threatens the ice caps’ integrity, the polar bear has also come to symbolize the environmental peril that has arisen due to harmful human practices. In the past twenty years alone, the world population of polar bears has shrunk by half. Today they number just 22,000.
Urgent and stirring, On Thin Ice is both a celebration and a rallying cry on behalf of one of earth’s greatest natural treasures.  




It was about 6:00 a.m. on July 18, 1994. I was in my little cabin aboard the Russian icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn, heading for the North Pole. I was a lecturer representing the American Museum of Natural History, to talk to the paying guests about Arctic mammalian wildlife, including seals, whales, walruses, and whatever else showed up. François Vuilleumier, the Swiss-born AMNH curator of ornithology, would identify and discuss the various gulls, terns, jaegers, and geese that we encountered en route. Our AMNH group shared the expedition with one from Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, led by the museum's director, Jim McCarthy. An announcement came over the PA system that a "polar bear is close to the ship." As I rushed to get dressed—we were near the North Pole, and running out in a T-shirt and shorts was not an option—I thought about how extraordinary this was. We had already spotted a couple of polar bears, but they were so far away, and white against a backdrop of snow and ice, that it was usually a case of: "There . . . over that little ridge . . . no, not that one, the bluish one with the pile of ice in front of it . . . see that white thing moving . . . that's the bear." I was wearing a parka, snow pants, and boots, and I'd stuffed five rolls of film in my pockets for my Minolta 35mm camera with a 35/300 zoom lens. The cabins on the Dranitsyn were stacked below the bridge in the forward superstructure—somebody once described the 434-foot-long icebreaker as "a block of flats on a barge"—so getting to the foredeck required hustling down five flights of stairs. I reached the foredeck level, opened the door, and got smacked in the face by the early-morning Arctic cold.

As I stepped out on deck, I saw nothing but ice, a vast white landscape interrupted only by an occasional flash of pale aquamarine where the ice had broken, cracked, or melted. Where two rafts had come together, pressure ridges formed into crumbled mounds of broken ice that rose above the otherwise colorless, water-level landscape. The sky mirrored the cold, dull monochrome of the icy plain surrounding us. A large group of people were clustered at the forward port rail, obviously looking at something. I pushed my way to the rail and looked down. Standing on the ice on his hind legs, waiting for crewmen to throw him another slice of bread, was a full-grown polar bear.

We had just left Franz Josef Land, an unoccupied archipelago in the northeastern Barents Sea, north of Novaya Zemlya, and 600 miles from the North Pole. In 1872, the Austrian explorers Karl Weyprecht and Julius Payer, seeking the Northeast Passage in the Admiral Tegetthoff, became trapped in the pack ice at Novaya Zemlya and drifted for a year, finally finding land in August 1873. (A replica of the Tegetthoff, built by an Austrian film crew and then abandoned, remains on the ice, a skeletal contrast to the rumbling behemoths in which we were heading for the pole.) Weyprecht and Payer had accidentally discovered a previously unknown group of islands, which they named Franz Josef Land after their emperor. After spending a year exploring the islands, they abandoned their ship and journeyed in a small boat for ninety-six days to Novaya Zemlya. Fridtjof Nansen tried to reach the pole in 1893 by drifting in the specially reinforced Fram, but when he found himself heading in the wrong direction, he left the ship with Hjalmar Johansen and attempted to reach his goal by sledge. They had to turn back, and spent the winter of 1896 in a stone hut with a walrus-skin roof on Franz Josef Land. During his three-year stay, Nansen became the first man to map this complicated collection of islands. In 1926 Franz Josef Land was annexed by the Soviet Union, and remote weather stations were erected.

When the bear got tired of the bread—or more likely, when the crewmen got tired of throwing it—he resumed his normal all-fours position and began to circle the ship. We were on the foredeck, some thirty feet above the bear, so he paid no attention to us, just walking slowly, swinging his head, and sniffing the ice. As he changed his position, the angle of the light also changed, so our photographs would appear to show any number of different bears walking in any number of different landscapes, but in fact there was only one bear. After about half an hour, he lost interest and wandered off, which gave us a great opportunity to photograph a polar bear from the rear. As we watched the bear depart, we realized that we had just had a rare and wonderful experience: we had seen one of nature's most spectacular predators; we were able to photograph a dangerous wild animal at absolutely no risk. (At other times on this voyage, when we stopped—or were stopped by the ice—and took a walk, we were always accompanied by a Russian sailor with a rifle.)

We were following another icebreaker, the nuclear-powered Yamal, which could summon 75,000 horsepower to our puny 24,000, and could therefore break more ice than we could. Unlike the South Pole, which is located in the middle of the Antarctic Continent, the North Pole is actually under water. Antarctica is a huge rocky landmass, covered by an ice sheet that may be as much as three miles thick, but here in the North, there is only water in a corresponding location. The North Polar ice cap accumulates every winter, a direct result of the Arctic Ocean freezing. The ice can be as much as twelve feet thick, and icebreakers do not plow through it, but rather ride up on it, relying on the weight of the steel-strengthened bow to break it—(Yamal, for example, displaces 23,000 tons)—thus creating a path which allows the ship to perform the same feat over and over again. There were times when Yamal failed to make a path and had to come about to try a different location. In a driving snowstorm, on July 21, three days after we saw the bear, Yamal sounded her whistle to announce that she had arrived at 90°00'N: the North Pole. The passengers dressed warmly and disembarked for a picnic. We had borscht, barbecued meats, lots of potatoes, and a generous supply of champagne and vodka for the celebratory toasts. Of course there is no "pole" there, but enterprising crew members had brought along a bright red metal pole with a banner atop it that said NORTH POLE 90 NORTH, and everybody took the opportunity to pose with it for a photograph.

By 1994, according to my calculations, the total number of people that had ever been to the North Pole, including explorers (by land, sea, and snowmobile), icebreaker crews and passengers, and submariners, was around 2,800. The passengers of Yamal and Kapitan Dranitsyn were therefore in very exalted company, and as we stood around congratulating ourselves for our singular feat of "exploration," a few hardy Russian crew members began enlarging the hole in the ice where the bow of Yamal had actually reached the pole. In addition to our shipboard triumph, we were going to be offered another opportunity for exclusive celebrity: we could go for a swim at the North Pole. In 1975, Canadian diver/doctor Joe MacInnis had taken England's Prince Charles on a scuba dive at the North Pole, but that was for TV. Our swim was for personal glory. One at a time, those of us who opted for the plunge removed our outer clothing and stripped down to our skivvies, and a great hawser was tied around our waists to make sure we could be hauled out in case we panicked and got trapped under the ice. I jumped in feet first, yowled from the shock of the ice-cold water, and was yanked out immediately. Russian sailors, who didn't seem to mind the cold and were wearing nothing more than skimpy European bathing suits, were standing by with towels and a much-needed shot of vodka.

In July 1994, the North Polar ice cap was ten feet thick, and our two icebreakers had a hell of a time crunching through to the North Pole. In August 2000, when Jim McCarthy returned on another North Pole cruise (this time aboard Yamal), he was amazed to see that where we had encountered a thick and almost impenetrable ice sheet six years earlier, he saw only open water. Malcolm McKenna, an AMNH paleontologist and lecturer, took the photograph that was reproduced on the front page of the New York Times, alongside an article ("Age-Old Icecap at North Pole Is Now Liquid, Scientists Find") written by science reporter John Noble Wilford. McCarthy and McKenna then coauthored an article—"Meltdown at the North Pole"—in the December 2000 issue of the science and policy magazine Environment. Their article and Wilford's piece in the Times, dated August 19, 2000, were among the first "popular" reports to discuss the diminution of the Arctic ice cap.

Upon encountering open water where there used to be thick ice, McCarthy, identified as "the co-leader of a group working for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change," said, "It was totally unexpected . . . I don't know if anybody in history ever got to ninety degrees north to be greeted by water, not ice." McCarthy and McKenna wrote in their article in Environment,

During the summer of 2000, the authors traveled, as part of a team of lecturers, aboard a Russian nuclear icebreaker to the North Pole. The lecturers were well-informed regarding recent scientific papers that discussed climate change in the Arctic, but had no expectations that any of this would be visible to casual observers like ourselves. However, a paucity of ice greeted us along our journey—there was open water at the North Pole—and upon the ship's return, those observations quickly made their way into a global web of print and electronic media.

Long before the Times article bemoaned the disappearing ice, polar bear scientists like Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher were warning that climatic warming would affect the bears. In a 1993 article in the journal Arctic, they wrote,

Eventually . . . it is likely that seal populations will decline wherever the quality and availability of breeding habitat are reduced. Rain during the late winter may cause polar bear maternity dens to collapse, causing the death of the occupants. Human-bear problems will increase as the open water period becomes longer and bears fasting and relying on their fat reserves become food stressed . . . Should the Arctic Ocean become seasonally ice-free for a long enough period, it is likely that polar bears would become extirpated from at least the southern portion of their range. If climatic warming occurs, the polar bear is an ideal species through which to monitor the cumulative effects in arctic marine ecosystems because of its position at the top of the arctic marine food chain.

It took a while before this message made it into the popular consciousness. In an interview ("Some Don't Like It Hot") given to the Harvard Gazette in March 2001, McCarthy said, "Thinning ice has made it harder for the bears to hunt, leading to weight loss and 10 percent fewer cubs than 20 years ago. We already see effects that the change in climate has engendered, and the projection of some of those effects into the future do not make a pretty scene."

Even though it was obvious to the observers aboard the Yamal that there was no ice at the North Pole in August 2000, the open water did not necessarily signify a meltdown of the Arctic ice cap. Wilford wrote, "The North Pole is melting . . . [and] at least for the time being, an ice free patch of ocean about a mile wide has opened at the very top of the world, something that has never before been seen by humans . . . ," but he did not say that there was no ice to be seen. (In fact, the photograph shows the bow of the Yamal breaking through the ice, then open water, then more ice ahead of the ship. According to Wilford, "The Yamal had to steam six miles away to find ice thick enough for the 100 passengers to get out and be able to say they had stood on the North Pole, or close to it.") What the observers actually saw was a mile-wide lead—a break in the floating sea ice—or a polynya—a wider swath of open water in sea ice. It would be several years before climatologists voiced their concerns that the North Pole might not ever be covered by sea ice again, regardless of season.

The articles describing open water at the North Pole also marked the beginning of the denial of global warming as the cause. McCarthy and McKenna wrote,

There were attempts to cast doubts on our credentials to observe what we saw . . . The negative op-ed columns were authored by people who clearly feared that some readers would see our simple observations as being consistent with the strong scientific case that Earth's climate is changing in ways that can be expected from anthropogenic greenhouse gas-forcing. Those authors prefer to believe that there is no scientific evidence for recent climate change.
Richard Ellis|Author Q&A

About Richard Ellis

Richard Ellis - On Thin Ice

Photo © Rick Edwards

Richard Ellis is the author of more than a dozen books. He is also a celebrated marine artist whose paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. He has written and illustrated articles for numerous magazines, including Audobon, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Scientific American. He lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

Q: First things first, why polar bears?

A: Polar bears are probably the most charismatic mammals on earth. They are beautiful, powerful, popular, misunderstood–and seriously endangered. After all the other books I’ve written, this seems like the book I was born to write.

Q: You begin the book with your own intimate encounter with a polar bear at the North Pole in 1994. Can you describe what brought you there, and why this encounter was so remarkable?

A: As a lecturer on Arctic wildlife, I was leading a cruise to the North Pole for the American Museum of Natural History (New York). We were on a Russian icebreaker, north of Spitsbergen, when we spotted this bear right alongside the boat. I photographed it (from the deck of the ship) until I ran out of film. (That was 1994, back in the days of film cameras.) At that time, the North Pole was covered with ice, about 8 feet thick. Within a few years, however, the Arctic ice cap had begun to melt, and ships arriving at the Pole found only open water. For me, the bear and the thick ice (the Russian sailors chopped a hole in the ice and we went for a dip at the North Pole) clearly showed the Arctic as it was 15 years ago–and will never be the same again.

Q: What in your opinion is the biggest misconception about polar bears?

A: People think of polar bears as man-eaters, always ready to attack (and eat) people they encounter on the ice. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, polar bears are intensely curious about anything that appears in their otherwise desolate landscape, and will approach and investigate sleds, tents, ships, people, dogs and anything else that looks unusual to them. Unfortunately for the bears, their curiosity is easily mistaken for aggression–if a bear pokes its head inside your tent, you might not want to wait to see what it had in mind–so bears have almost always been approached with a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Yes, there have been polar bear attacks on people, but people attacks on bears probably outnumber them 1,000 to one.

Q: Unlike some other books on polar bears you trace man’s history with the bear back to the 16th century. What were these early encounters like?

A: When the first explorers and whalers headed north, they encountered all sorts of unexpected animals, including bowhead whales (the object of the Greenland “fishery”), narwhals, belugas, and of course, the stately, white, ghostlike bears. People almost always shot the bears they saw, often because they felt threatened (see above), but also for target practice. A big beautiful animal standing on the ice was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Q: What is it about its whiteness that has made the polar bear such an iconic (and sometimes feared) creature?

A: First of all, a white bear is most unusual, as all other bear species are brown or black. For its own reasons, polar bears blend into their environment, but people saw this as a device for sneaking up on them. White is usually considered the color of cleanliness, goodness and purity, but no less an authority on that color (or lack thereof) than Herman Melville wrote, “This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors that they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb-gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white shrouded bear or shark.”

Q: The polar bear has become a media star in recent years, both as the poster child for global warming and as cute cubs (like Knut) are born in zoos around the world. Their political significance has increased greatly and you compare this to the profile of whales during the 1980s. Has this increased attention been making a difference?

A: The polar bear has become a sort of double-barreled icon: On one hand, its cuteness has endowed with the kind of popularity in zoos, TV shows, and advertising that is unequalled by any other creature (except perhaps penguins, which are not nearly so cuddly); and on the other, the lone bear, traversing the endless icy wastelands in search of food or a mate has come to symbolize the precarious state of the Arctic itself. But too many people are more concerned with oil and gas prospecting in the Arctic, and they will not let the bears–no matter how cute or endangered–stand in their way.

Q: A frequent image invoked by environmental and conservation groups is that as the ice flows melt, polar bears are forced to keep swimming in search of ice until they drown. How widespread is this awful fate?

A: It is probably true that some bears set out to swim in search of ice floes that are not there, and even though these marine bears can swim for 100 miles, some of them keep swimming until they drown. But more critical is the loss of the ice itself, the required habitat for breeding seals. As the ice continues to recede, the seals will have no place to deliver their pups, and no seal pups means no food for the bears. As polar bears eat ONLY seals (and an occasional walrus), if their main prey items disappear, the bears will too.

Q: There are polar bears in zoos around the world, even right in the middle of Central Park. How are the arctic creatures able to survive in these climates?

A: In fact, polar bears don’t do very well in zoos. Because of their enormous range (some bears can cover 100,000 miles in their lifetimes), confinement in a small enclosure, even one with rocks and a pool, is completely antithetical to their lifestyle. They survive in zoos all right, but they often exhibit repetitive behavior, like swimming or walking around in endless circles, or in some cases, attacking people. (There have been two fatal polar bear attacks in New York City zoos.)

Q: Your last chapter is titled “Is the Polar Bear Doomed?” In your opinion, is the polar bear doomed, or are there still steps that we can take to save bears and their habitat?

A: The polar bear can be saved by reducing greenhouse gases to curtail global warming. Some scientists believe that we have already reached the tipping point, and even if we were to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero TOMORROW–which seems somewhat unlikely–the Arctic ice would continue to melt at an increasingly accelerated rate. As it melts, more sunlight hits the water, which means more warmer water, which means more ice melting.

Because polar bears have evolved in a very specialized environment–the ice and waters of the Arctic–they cannot easily adapt to another way of life. Some polar bears have wandered south in search of food, and have found themselves so far from their natural food supply that they starved to death. Can’t we simply move them to the Antarctic where there is still plenty of ice  and plenty of penguins to eat? In a word: NO. They would be as out of place on the Antarctic ice sheet as they would be in the rain forest. Antarctic seals some of which are almost as big and aggressive as polar bears do not den under the ice, and the bears could not possibly catch them in the water. If they were to feed on penguins, which they certainly could catch (and also feed on the eggs and chicks), they would quickly endanger the various penguin species, some of which are in trouble already. Finally, the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the reverse of those in the north, so transplanted bears would be completely turned around, with their denning and hunting seasons reversed.

Transplanting animals, for whatever reason, is a terrible idea. Think of what happened when they introduced rabbits into Australia, or mongooses into Hawaii (instead of eating the rats, they ate the birds). The Everglades now has a serious python problem, from the giant snakes that their owners couldn’t handle and released into the swamp. Recently, a python in Florida killed a two-year-old girl and tried to swallow her.

Q: You have now written books about sharks, whales, squid, tuna, and now polar bears. Is there a species that you’ll be writing about next?

A: I’m working on a study of the sperm whale, unquestionably the weirdest animal on earth (and of, course, the subject of Moby-Dick.) From its 20-foot- long nose, in which there is a complex of tubes, sacs and lips (yes, lips in its nose), and thousand gallons of clear oil, the sperm whale can broadcast–and aim–sonic bursts that are the loudest sounds made by any living creature, louder than a spaceship takeoff. They use these sound bursts to immobilize and kill their prey (sometimes giant squid) a mile down. And the whale can hold its breath for an hour while doing it. Amazing!

From the Hardcover edition.



“Timely, passionate and comprehensive. . . .  Ellis is . . . a graceful writer who’s written some of the best natural history books of the past decade.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Ellis is [the polar bear’s] ideal champion. . . . By presenting the bears’ plight in such convincing terms, Ellis shows unequivocally that the fate of these magnificent creatures is in our hands.” —Providence Journal

“It takes a hard heart indeed to be unmoved by this history of an endangered species.” —The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
“Vivid and affectionate.” —Time Out New York
“[Ellis] clearly loves these animals, and so do we by the time he’s done. . . . Excellent.” —National Geographic Adventure

“[Ellis’s] thorough discussion of the polar bear in history and literature and his concise description of its physiology serve as a background to a powerful plea for the survival of one of the most imposing animals.” —St Louis Post-Dispatch
“Masterful. . . . Ellis relieves the more painful passages . . . with fascinating details about polar bear biology and behavior.” —Louisville Courier-Journal
“Through [Ellis’s] eyes, the ice bear becomes more than a sacrificial symbol; it becomes a vital part of the mental and physical landscape we inhabit.” —Los Angeles Times 
“In On Thin Ice Richard Ellis . . . paints a natural history of the icon of the north, the polar bear. Well-versed in the complicated history and politics of whaling, he describes the long tradition of Arctic explorers who proved themselves by taking on the white bear.” —The Economist 
“A memorable and important book about a magnificent animal that now seems doomed to die before our very eyes.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“[Ellis’s] newest book captivated me. . . . 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. . . . I found it hard to put down.” —Susan Meadows, Santa Fe New Mexican  
“This is a thoughtful and well-researched book about the beast of the decade: the beast of the new millennium. . . . Ellis does his best to allow the bears to speak for themselves.” —The Times (London)
“It’s disturbing to learn just how threatened the polar bear is by the effects of global warming and the melting of ice packs. Ellis offers a detailed look at the lifestyle of Earth’s largest predator.” —Sacramento Bee
“If Ellis does not have all the answers, he certainly has a clear vision of all the problems.” —The Anniston Star
“An extensive portrayal of impressions, interactions and impacts of humans upon the polar bear. . . . Fascinating.” —The Winnipeg Free Press

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