“A Harrowing Encounter”- my published review of “Meltdown”

Here’s an excerpt of my just-published review of “Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World” (the story of the July 2013 polar bear attack in Labrador, Canada), adapted from my November 2014 blog post. The review is called “A Harrowing Encounter” and it’s just out in the Spring 2015 issue of RANGE Magazine.

Polarbear vs dogs_lger_Norbert Rosing photo 2008_Brian Ladoon dogs WHB
In the photo above, a polar bear approaches Brian Ladoon’s Canadian Eskimo Dogs in Churchill, Manitoba – in this case, unlike the hiker described in “Meltdown,” there was a happy ending. Norbert Rosing photo, from this Daily Mail article, 2008 (for more, see also “A priest of dogs and bears” from 2013 and cool video here).

In July 2013, a Maine lawyer was seriously mauled by a polar bear while on a Sierra Club-sponsored adventure trip to Labrador with six other hikers. He lived to tell the tale to an eco-journalist, who has turned this terrifying incident into an ebook with an alarming message of imminent polar bear extinction that has already lost what little scientific credibility it once had.

The press release announcing the ebook (published by InsideClimateNews, which employs the author, Sabrina Shankman), described the book as “A riveting new ebook about the battle between man, beast and Nature in a warming world. Called “Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World,” the ebook 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.”

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.”

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.” It uses the gruesome details of a predatory polar bear attack—a known media and publishing draw—as bait to sell a false message that Arctic sea ice is in an unnatural state of decline and polar bears are in peril.

Not only did the attack itself have nothing to do with a starving bear but the population to which the bear belonged has been increasing in size despite sea ice declines. As for the “peril” of polar bear extinction emphasized in the book, models used to predict such a dismal future have been declared unscientific by top conservation experts.

The Context
The polar bear attack took place in Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador, which can hardly be described as “the top of the world” (see map).

The date of the attack was 24 July 2013. According to Canadian Ice Service charts, sea ice had left the coast in late June or so, as it had for the last few years. This means that by July 24, polar bears had been onshore for only a few weeks. If anything, the attacking bear may have been so fresh off the ice that he was still in hunting mode, ready to keep eating. Most polar bears are at their heaviest weight of the year in early summer.

The subpopulation of polar bears to which the attacking bear belonged is known as “Davis Strait” and its bears have been variously described as “stable” (by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Polar Bear Specialist Group in February 2014) and “likely increasing” (by Environment Canada’s Polar Bear Technical Committee, in June 2014). Overall, Davis Strait bears off Labrador experience an ice-free season from late summer to fall that is usually longer than that of western and southern Hudson Bay bears. Although the exact dates are variable, southern Davis Strait bears are generally onshore from about mid-to-late June to early or late December.

The Davis Strait polar bear population has grown substantially since the 1990s despite a slightly longer ice-free season. Polar bears off Labrador eat primarily harp seals in the spring (the most important feeding season). Labrador-area bears are doing very well because harp seal numbers are currently at their highest since the mid-19th century.

The Details
Seven hikers, two of whom were the expedition’s Sierra Club leaders and another was a board member for the book’s eventual publisher, set out on a two-week-long adventure.

The victim was Maine lawyer Matt Dyer, a self-described “liberal activist” and long-time Sierra Club member.


Dyer suffered two broken neck vertebrae, a crushed jaw and broken bones in his left hand. One of the other hikers, an MD, was able to stabilize Dyer’s injuries until he could be airlifted to Montreal for more extensive treatment. He eventually recovered. Dyer’s polar bear attack story has been shamelessly exploited by Shankman as an attention-grabbing vehicle for fearmongering about sea ice declines and polar bear extinction blamed on global warming. However, the computer models created by IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group biologist Steven Amstrup and his colleagues, used to predict possible polar bear extinction by 2050, has been strongly criticized by IUCN Red List modeling experts as unacceptably unscientific.

Take away those deficient models and the hype over imminent extinction evaporates against a wall of evidence that polar bears have so far not been harmed by the dramatic summer sea ice declines documented so far (see “Polar Bears Miss the Message on Global Warming” at www.rangemagazine.com. Click on Fall 2014). The polar bear is not “losing its natural habitat to a manmade meltdown”– neither is it “battling starvation” or “facing extinction.” Such blatant misinformation distracts from the take-home message that should have been the focus of this book: hikers who travel unprepared in polar bear territory put their lives at risk.

[Contact me if you’d like a copy of the Spring 2015 issue (hard copies only). See here “Polar bears miss the message on global warming” for an excerpt from the Fall 2014 issue of Range magazine; pdf here]

NB: Some might find of interest another article in the Spring 2015 issue about the activities of the Center for Biological Diversity with regard to the US Endangered Species Act, by Chance Gowan, called “The Litigation Factory.”

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