Terror at the Top of the World: How We Got the Story

Rundown of how we got the polar bear attack story, and how it turned into a harrowing tale of global warming that affects everyone.

Credit: Catherine Mann

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Inside the making of Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World by InsideClimate News in partnership with VICE. 

In August 2013, David Sassoon, the publisher of InsideClimate News, got a call from a friend, Larry Rodman, who shared a story about a harrowing experience he’d had on a backpacking trip to Canada’s Arctic tundra. A polar bear had attacked a member of Rodman’s group. The victim, a legal aid attorney named Matt Dyer, had survived—but just barely.

A few weeks later, I started working at ICN and David asked if I would look into it and maybe write something for the site. More than a year later, that “something” turned into “Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World,” an e-book we released last month. Part one of “Polar Bear Man,” a documentary produced by our partners at VICE, is being released today.

Read a free excerpt of Meltdown here. Click here to get the full book on the ICN books app, or download as a Kindle Single.

Rodman’s role in the project was crucial. He introduced me to the other six group members, helping me build the trust and relationships that ultimately allowed me to tell this story. (Six months later, Rodman joined the InsideClimate News board of directors.)

Sabrina Shankman of InsideClimate News in the Torngats in August 2014.

As I listened to each person’s account of the events, I was struck by the fact that this survival story was also a story of friendship and a bond that was born in the wilderness and solidified by a horrifying experience. But what elevated this story from a quick recounting of a backpacking trip-gone-wrong to a yearlong project was something I learned in my first days of reporting: That polar bear biologists have been predicting for years that as the bears lose their habitat, the sea ice, their interactions with humans will increase. With temperatures rising faster in the Arctic than the rest of the world and sea ice melting at unprecedented rates, this prediction is no longer hidden in the pages of scientific journals. It’s happening now.

I interviewed almost two dozen scientists for this project—polar bear biologists, sea ice modelers and experts on Arctic ecosystems. Many spent hours on the phone with me, patiently breaking down complex concepts so I could accurately explain them to a general audience. Capturing the nuances of the science was essential, and I had to make sure I didn’t let any inaccuracies sneak in. In the final weeks before publication, I confirmed with each scientist that the language I was using remained scientifically accurate.

One of the complicated things about reporting about polar bears, I learned, is that while some polar bear populations are in trouble now (a recent report on bears in the southern Beaufort Sea of Alaska found the population declined 40 percent in the first decade of this century), scientists say the real trouble is coming down the line.

The attacks are just one symptom of the bears’ uncertain future. Their habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. Almost 700,000 square miles of sea ice have vanished from the Arctic since the late 1970s, and climate models project the Arctic will have its first ice-free summer by the middle of this century. Because polar bears have evolved to live and hunt on the ice, biologists project that two-thirds could be gone by then. 

A turning point in the project came in mid-August, when I travelled from New York City to the Torngats with Matt Dyer and the crew from VICE. It was barely a year since the attack, and Matt was searching for closure. It’s not a choice that many would have made—to return to the place where you were almost killed—but it seemed an easy one for him.

The trip was incredible on a number of levels. It’s hard not feel like the luckiest person alive when your work sends you on a reporting trip to a dream location. I mean: roaming polar bears, massive icebergs and the freshest Arctic Char—a few of which I caught myself. Pinch me. It is the most beautiful place I have ever been. Despite what happened on the trip that I write about in “Meltdown,” I would definitely recommend traveling to the Torngats, though I’d suggest taking the precautions we did: hire a bear guard and sleep on a boat, not on the land.

While in the Torngats, I had the chance to get to know Matt. Everyone—from the locals and Parks Canada staff to the VICE crew and myself—was impressed by his desire to return to the scene of his terrifying ordeal. He never lost his sense of humor, but he also allowed himself to embrace the enormity of what he’d been through.

It was important to me that in making Matt the subject of this project I didn’t subject him to yet another trauma. From our first email exchange in 2013 until the day before publication, I was as transparent with him as possible, so there were no surprises along the way. I also checked and double-checked with the other group members, to make sure I captured their experiences accurately. For the most part, their memories aligned. When discrepancies arose, I often turned to the impeccable notes that the Sierra Club trip leaders, Marta Chase and Rich Gross, kept before, during and after their adventure.

One of the many memorable experiences I had in the Torngats was meeting Maria and Eli Merkuratsuk, a sister and brother team of Inuit bear guards who provided insight that colored everything I later wrote. They had grown up spending summers in the same fjord where Matt was attacked, and they described in vivid detail how much the landscape—and their own place in that landscape— had changed since the melting began. Talking with them drove home the point the scientists had made, that “Meltdown” isn’t just a story about polar bears—it’s a story about me, and you and every other creature on the earth.

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