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Part 2: “Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World” Links Polar Bear Attacks to Climate Change

Web ExclusiveNovember 17, 2014
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Watch part two of our look at a new investigation that tells the story of seven American hikers who went on a wilderness adventure into polar bear country in Canada’s Arctic tundra — and faced a harrowing attack. Scientists say climate change is greatly impacting polar bear habitat. We speak with Rich Gross, a Sierra Club guide on the trip, and Sabrina Shankman, a reporter with InsideClimate News and author of the new ebook, Meltdown: Terror at the top of the World.

Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we continue to look at climate change now as we turn to a new investigation by the Pulitzer Prize-winning website InsideClimate News. It’s called “Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World.” It tells the story of seven American hikers who went on a wilderness adventure into polar bear country in Canada’s Arctic tundra and faced a harrowing attack. The trip was led by two Sierra Club guides, including Rich Gross, who will join us. But despite taking proper steps to protect themselves, a polar bear came to their camp in the middle of the night and pulled one of the hikers out of his tent.

AMY GOODMAN: The project that we’re going to be talking about is a Vice News/InsideClimate News project. InsideClimate News is the Pulitzer Prize-winning climate website. We’re joined right now by Sabrina Shankman. She has written an ebook about this attack and gone beyond to talk about how it relates to climate change. And Vice did the documentary. Rich Gross also with us from San Francisco. And in part two of our conversation, I was wondering if we could step back, Rich, and you just tell us the decision you made to go to this area of the Arctic. Why? Why you went there? Were you concerned about these kinds of attacks? How do you prepare for something like this?

RICH GROSS: Sure. So, my co-leader and I—Marta Chase, my co-leader, and I—lead trips mostly in remote places in the Arctic, and so we’ve led trips throughout northern Alaska, northern Canada, up by Ellesmere Island. And the purpose of the trips—they’re Sierra Club-sponsored trips. The purpose of the trips are to take people out to the wilderness to show them what it’s like and to create activists in order to help protect the climate. And so, that’s why Sierra Club runs trips, and it’s why we run trips, and to remote places, because they are, in many cases, the most at-risk places.

We went to the Torngats, in particular. It’s the newest Canadian national park. It’s an area we hadn’t been before. And it is an area with polar bears. We had seen—we’ve had, throughout—you know, you can’t travel in the Arctic without having bear encounters, mostly grizzlies, brown bears. And we had never seen polar bears, and we wanted to see that. We also wanted to see this really spectacular place with fjords going straight into—mountains going straight into the fjords. Just a really spectacular place. So we arranged a trip there.

And because it’s polar bears, and you have to take precautions, we did a number of things. So we carried with us what’s called bear bangers, which are a little explosive device. We carried a 12-gauge double magnesium flare gun to scare away bears. We also carried electric fences with us—bear spray also, and then electric fences, to both surround our camp and to surround the food area, which was about a thousand feet—300 yards away, about a thousand feet away. So we took all those precautions, which were all the precautions that were recommended to us in order to protect the group. You know, the idea of the bear crashing through the fence was something that we had not counted on and was not expected by anybody. So we took, you know, all the precautions we thought we could possibly need at that point.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of—well, you mentioned in the part one of the interview a bear crashing through the electrified fence. But that, in particular, didn’t awaken anybody at the time, when he came through there?

RICH GROSS: No, the fence is just three small strands of wire, so it’s—you know, the bear can’t fit through the fence, but it will—as it touches the fence, it gets 7,000 volts of electricity, and it’s supposed to shock the bear and have it go away. So, the bear is pretty silent going through that fence, and once it gets an initial shock, I assume that it kept coming and crashed through and grabbed Matt through the tent.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have since gone with Matt and other members of that journey to do other tours like this.

RICH GROSS: Yeah, so—well, a number of the people on that trip had been—had traveled with Marta and I before on Arctic trips that we had taken. It was Matt’s first trip with us. But we led a trip in the Sierra this last summer, and Matt was along on the trip, as well, then.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sabrina Shankman, in this project you’ve done with Vice, the Vice documentary and your ebook, this terrifying moment, you have expanded much broader. I mean, here you have this hiker, Matt, who is dragged by the bear, his head in his mouth. Amazingly, he survives, I think because of the fast work of Rich Gross with shooting that flare gun, clearly. But talk about the scientists you’ve spoken to and the conclusions that have been reached. Some might say, “Well, you shouldn’t be in this area. This is where the polar bears live, not where you should be.”

SABRINA SHANKMAN: Yeah, I mean, there are some people that say that. There are others who say that there are safe ways to travel in polar bear country, but that it’s—maybe it’s different than what it was 20 years ago. You know, I know people who are advocating for maybe travel by a boat and sleep on a boat. And that’s actually what we did when I went back up there with the Vice News crew and with Matt Dyer in August. You know, we were in the same exact area, but we slept on the boat, where it’s harder for a polar bear to get you. But, you know, what the scientists are saying is that this is kind of just part of the equation with climate change, that sea ice is disappearing at unprecedented rates. I mean, in 2012, we had the last all-time low in sea ice levels, and it was 49 percent lower than the historical average from the late '70s to 2000. And this is not—you know, people like to argue about whether or not the sea ice is disappearing. This is based on satellite records, right? So that it's kind of hard to fight with that. But it’s almost an inevitability. And that’s actually what someone from Parks Canada who investigated this attack afterwards said, that sleeping out where they were, with as many bears as they saw in that area, it’s hard to imagine it not happening, that it was almost a foregone conclusion.

AMY GOODMAN: Polar bears attack when they’re hungry or they’re provoked?

SABRINA SHANKMAN: Polar bears could attack for a number of reasons, but hunger is definitely one of them. You know, you could also have a bear that stumbles upon something, and it freaks the bear out. You know, it’s hard to say, because there’s actually like an interesting dearth of certain kinds of research, because polar bears are huge, and they’re in areas that have 24-hour darkness for parts of the year. So, there’s not as much known. But yeah, hunger is certainly one of the reasons, and I think that’s why you’re seeing, you know, as—because polar bears will see a human and not think, “Oh, well, that’s not the kind of food I eat, so I’ll just go somewhere else.” They see a human and think, “Well, like, I’m hungry.” You know, they’re opportunistic eaters. So, a human might look good to a hungry bear. And that, indeed, seems to be the case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of what the local residents or native populations of the area tell you about the changes that have been occurring over recent years?

SABRINA SHANKMAN: Yeah, that was really interesting. So when I was up there with the Vice crew and with Matt, we spent a lot of time with a couple of Inuit, who actually grew up on Nachvak Fjord, going there every summer, the exact place where Matt Dyer was attacked and where Rich and Marta led this group. And when they were growing up, they didn’t see polar bears at all. You know, by the time, you know, maybe we’re talking by the '70s, they would see a bear every now and then, but now you have lots of bears in the area. It's a very dense population there, but a population that’s also been found to have declines in body condition, in survival of cubs, which are exactly the kinds of things that you expect right before the population declines. I mean, this area sees 50 fewer days per year of sea ice than it used to back in the '70s. But it's not just about the ice and the bears. What you’re also seeing is the mountaintops are now covered in green. They’re beautiful. But they used to be covered in rock and brown. There’s all this growth. Likewise, there’s tons of mosquitoes. I mean, you kind of feel like you’re under attack when you’re there. But when these people were kids, they just didn’t exist up there. It’s this totally new phenomenon.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole issue of sea ice and polar bears—polar bears would stand on the sea ice, seals would be there, they would eat the seals on the sea ice. But now you don’t have the sea ice.

SABRINA SHANKMAN: That’s exactly right. Polar bears, I mean, they’re very cool. You know, they have evolved from grizzly bears in these very specific ways that allow them to thrive out on the sea ice. You know, they don’t hibernate in the winter. They’re thrilled that it’s winter, because they like the cold. You know, they have this—they have black skin. They have translucent fur. They have huge skulls. They’re massive animals that live in the water and on the ice. And they sit by the holes, breathing holes that seals use on the sea ice, very quietly, very patiently, and then as soon as a seal pops up to breathe, it grabs it by the skull, hauls it out on the ice, and it has a great meal. But if you take away that access point, that kind of spells trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Rich Gross, as we wrap up, what do you take away from this attack? And how do you fight around the issue of climate change today?

RICH GROSS: Well, I think the takeaway is that, you know, it’s clear that bears are acting differently and that the precautions we take, obviously, have to be different. But, you know, like I said, the purpose of Sierra Club’s trips are to take people out there, show them the wilderness and create activists, create people that will protect that. And, you know, I think that my biggest takeaway is, as it always is in these places, that we are so small as a species, but we can have such an enormous impact on the environment, and so that it makes climate change that much more important as an issue and as an issue to be active about. So, you know, any time that you’re up in the Arctic and you see the kind of impact humans can have, you come back, and it makes you more—it makes it more important to be an activist.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Rich Gross, Sierra Club guide since 1990, and Sabrina Shankman with InsideClimate News, author of the new ebook, Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Check out part one of this interview at Thanks so much.

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