“Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World” — new book exploits polar bear attack to sell fear of sea ice decline

The polar bear attack that was all over the news last summer is now an ebook about global warming. The Maine lawyer who was mauled by a bear while on a hiking trip to Labrador (and lived to tell the tale) has allowed his story to be co-opted by an activist journalist to promote fears of sea ice decline, polar bear extinction, and man-made global warming.

Melt-down_Terror at the Top of the World_Nov 12 2014 press release book cover

The press release issued yesterday by the news group that published the book and employs author Sabrina Shankman (InsideClimateNews), described it this way:

“A riveting new e-book about the battle between man, beast and Nature in a warming world. Called Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World, the e-book tells the story of the hikers’ harrowing encounter with a polar bear; of the plight of the polar bear in general, facing starvation and extinction as the sea ice melts and its habitat disappears; and of the Arctic meltdown, the leading edge of man-made climate change.”

I have little doubt the man mauled by the bear was indeed terrified and that his companions were as well. However, that horror is exploited shamelessly in this book as a means to promote anxiety over the future survival of polar bears and instill panic over a prophesied Arctic “meltdown.”

In my review copy, the first page of this ebook contained “a note to the reader” from publisher David Sassoon that included this statement:

“It [the polar bear] lives where few people venture, but it is losing its natural habitat to a man-made meltdown, battling starvation and facing extinction.

The climate change that is thawing the Arctic is upon us all, wherever we may be.

It is not coming by surprise like a wild beast in the dark. It is advancing by our own invitation, drop by melting drop, in parts per million of CO2 we know how to count, in satellite images we can decipher, in accordance with laws of physics we cannot alter.”

This “note” tells you pretty much all you need to know about what to expect. The book uses the gruesome details of a predatory bear attack — a known media and publishing draw — as bait to sell a false message that the Arctic sea ice is in an unnatural state of decline and polar bears are in peril.

Here’s a brief summary of the attack the book is based on (with links to an excellent online account that let’s you by-pass this book), some polar bear facts and sea ice context to counter the hype, and background on the author and publisher.

Where the attack happened
The mauling took place in Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador. At 59 degrees N latitude, it is slightly north of Churchill, Manitoba (Fig. 1).

The top of the world (the North Pole) is at 90 degrees N latitude, about 2,070 miles or 3,350km away. What’s a little literary license?

Figure 1. Location of the 2013 polar bear attack on Matt Dyer, in Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador, Canada. At latitude ~59 degrees North, the park is on almost the same latitude as Churchill, Manitoba (~58 degrees N), but is about 2,070 miles away from the North Pole (“the top of the world”).

Figure 1. Location of the 2013 polar bear attack on Matt Dyer, in Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador, Canada. At latitude 59 degrees North or so, the park is on almost the same latitude as Churchill, Manitoba (~58 degrees N) and about 2,070 miles away from the North Pole (“the top of the world”).

State of the sea ice
The polar bear attack took place on 24 July 2013. The sea ice had left the coast early in July (Fig. 2 below), so by the 24th, the bears had not been ashore for very long. While there may have been a few poor hunters who hadn’t put on enough fat, most of the bears would have been far from starving. On the contrary, many would still have been in hunting mode.

Figure 2. State of the sea ice at 30 June 2013. On that date, there was still ice off Torngat Mountains National Park where the polar bear attack occurred. Bears would have been getting ready to leave the ice.

Figure 2. State of the sea ice at 30 June 2013. On that date, there was still ice off Torngat Mountains National Park where the polar bear attack occurred but bears would have been getting ready to go ashore for the summer.

Overall, Davis Strait bears experience an ice-free season in summer/fall that is very similar to that of Western and Southern Hudson Bay bears (lasting from about early July to mid-November).

State of the polar bears
The bears in this area of Labrador belong to the Davis Strait subpopulation, which Environment Canada considers to be “likely increasing” despite having some of the longest ice-free seasons in the Arctic. While changes in cub production and body condition have been documented, they may indicate the population is approaching its carrying capacity rather than suffering the effects of declining sea ice.

Figure 4. The Davis Strait (DS) subpopulation region runs from just below the Arctic Circle at the north end to at least 470N in the south. About half of DS lays at the same latitude as Western Hudson Bay (WH). Courtesy Environment Canada.

Figure 3. The Davis Strait (DS) subpopulation region runs from just below the Arctic Circle at the north end to at least 470N in the south. About half of DS lays at the same latitude as Western Hudson Bay (WH). Courtesy Environment Canada.

And the polar bears’ future? As I’ve noted recently, the models that predicted polar bear extinction have been strongly criticized by modeling experts at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as unacceptably unscientific for projection purposes. Take away those deficient models and the fear of extinction evaporates against a wall of evidence that polar bears have so far not been harmed by summer sea ice declines.

Details of the attack
Seven hikers set out on a two week long adventure organized by the Sierra Club.The mauling happened in the middle of the night of the third day, about 2:30am, despite the electric perimeter fence they had in place. The group assumed the bear that attacked the victim (Matt Dyer) was the same big male that had advanced on their campsite the afternoon before. The bear had come within 30-50 yards but retreated when the group fired some flares at it. But the bear stayed nearby, watching. The hikers knew he was there but apparently were not especially concerned.

The bear attacked Dyer tent and all: it just pounced on the one-man tent and hauled the whole package away down the beach. The other hikers fired off some flares. The bear dropped Dyer and left. The bear was not pursued in the days afterward and was not shot.

These details are covered in the book but also found online in an account published in the Maine Press Herald on September 2, 2013. If you read that news report, you won’t miss much that’s in Shankman’s book and it has pictures the book doesn’t have. Dyer is described in the Press Herald account as a “liberal activist” and long-time member of the Sierra Club, an organization that has been quite vocal about polar bear conservation issues. The Sierra Club organized trip to Labrador cost Dyer ~US$6,000.

How the book was written
From the press release:

The hikers generously entrusted us with their searing personal experiences, and many of the world’s leading polar bear scientists shared their expertise as well,” said David Sassoon, publisher of InsideClimate News. “Those of us reading Meltdown with a full stomach, in the warmth and safety of human civilization should not feel immune from this tale of terror. The climate change that is thawing the Arctic is upon us all, wherever we may be.”

Meltdown is based on lengthy interviews with the seven hikers as well as almost two dozen of the world’s experts on polar bears and sea ice. Author Sabrina Shankman also traveled with Vice Media, InsideClimate News’ partner in this project, to report first-hand from the site where the hikers pitched their tents on their first three nights in the wilderness.” [my bold]

As you’ll see below, some of those claims misrepresent the facts.

My review copy had 53 pages, including the “note to readers” and no references. There were no pictures or maps in the review copy, although it is now clear that the the final version does have maps and pictures. 

See an excerpt provided here.

Experts mentioned
While the press release says the book is “based on lengthy interviews with…almost two dozen of the world’s experts on polar bears and sea ice,” in fact there are only about six expert accounts that looked like they could have come from interviews. At least half of the material that related to “experts” are very short summaries of their published papers or books, not interviews (e.g. Stirling and Derocher 2012, discussed here and here; Peacock et al. 2013; Derocher 2012; Robbins et al. 2012; Parkinson 2013).

Cecilia Bitz, co-author of a 2006 paper that projected an ice-free Arctic by 2040, does appear to have been interviewed (Holland et al. 2006), as were a few others: James Wilder, US Fish and Wildlife (about polar bear attacks); Jacko Merkuratsuk, local Inuit hunter (about quotas); Robert Rockwell, on polar bears consuming terrestrial foods; Judy Rowell, superintendent of Torngat Mountains National Park (about attack prevention).

Promotion of the book
An ambitious schedule of promotion appears to be planned for such a little book. From the press release:

Vice Media will be publishing a book excerpt and will air a documentary video produced in collaboration with ICN starting in late November. Meltdown will also be available as a Kindle Single on Amazon and offered through ICN’s multi-media book app, ICN Books, as well.

About the author
From the press release:

Sabrina Shankman joined InsideClimate News in the fall of 2013 as a producer and reporter. Prior to that she worked for 2over10 Media, producing documentaries and interactives for PBS’ “Frontline.” In 2012, she produced A Perfect Terrorist: David Coleman Headley’s Web of Betrayal, an online interactive that won an Overseas Press Club of America award. Shankman also has reported for ProPublica, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. Her work has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists; in 2010, she was a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists. Shankman has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

About the publisher
From the press release:

InsideClimate News is a non-profit, non-partisan news organization that covers clean energy, carbon energy, nuclear energy and environmental science—plus the territory in between where law, policy and public opinion are shaped.

From the ICN website:

Our mission is to produce clear, objective stories that give the public and decision-makers the information they need to navigate the heat and emotion of climate and energy debates.”

Climate and energy are defining issues of our time, yet most media outlets are now hard-pressed to devote sufficient resources to environmental and investigative reporting. Our goal is to fill this growing national deficiency and contribute to the accurate public understanding so crucial to the proper functioning of democracy.” [my bold]

Comments are closed.