Kale Williams on Reporting Climate Change and "The Loneliest Polar Bear"

Kale Williams
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
Kale Williams | Photo by David Killen

I knew there was more to Nora’s story when I met Gene Agnaboogok, the man who had killed her grandmother.

It was late March of 2017 and I’d just arrived at Agnaboogok’s home in the Inupiat village of Wales on the northwest coast of Alaska. I was reporting on Nora, a polar bear I’d met a few months before when she was moved to Portland as a 10-month old cub.

Her arrival had captured the attention of my editor at The Oregonian and we’d begun looking into Nora’s background. Newborn polar bears usually spend their first two years with their moms, but Nora had been abandoned by her mother, Aurora, just six days after birth. She’d been hand raised by a team of keepers and veterinarians in Ohio. Only a handful of polar bear cubs had been successfully raised by keepers from such a young age. In that respect, Nora was an exceedingly rare creature.

But Nora’s father, a bear named Nanuq, had a compelling backstory as well. In March of 1988, almost 28 years to the day before my visit, Agnaboogok had gone out hunting on the sea ice north of the village. While climbing down from the top of an iceberg, he’d crashed through the roof of a polar bear den and landed on top of the mother bear. She attacked and Agnaboogok killed her in self-defense. It was only after he’d collected himself that he realized there were two cubs in the den. 

He brought them back to his home in Wales, turned the cubs over to the Department of Fish & Wildlife and the cubs ended up living out their lives in zoos. One was named Norton, after the Norton Sound, and the other Nanuq. Nearly three decades later, Nanuq would father his own cub named Nora.

Nora’s story — of her mental and physical struggles as a cub, her connection to climate change in the Arctic through people like Agnaboogok and her role as an ambassador for her species —would become the basis for a five-part series published in The Oregonian.

Kale Williams interviews staff members at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in April 2017

The series was well received and won a 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. But like that first day I met Agnaboogok, I knew there was a bigger story to tell about the impact of climate change on Nora’s polar cousins and the humans with whom they uneasily co-exist. Within a few weeks I began working on what would become “The Loneliest Polar Bear,” the book about Nora that was published in March.

I talked to zookeepers, veterinarians and scientists who study polar bears both in zoos and in their natural environs. I also went back to Wales to talk to Agnaboogok and others in the village about how climate change was changing the way they live.

The changes had become evident even before I began interviews for the book. When I first went to Wales in March of 2017, it was bitterly cold, and the sea ice near the shore was several feet thick. In 2019, at the same time of year, it was warm enough that precipitation fell as rain, not snow. The Bering Sea was open water, from the beach in Wales across the water to the Siberian coast.

Temperatures in the Arctic fluctuate from year to year, so there’s no way to pin the warm winter of 2019 directly to climate change. But the unseasonable warmth was a stark illustration of trends climate scientists have been observing for decades. The entire globe is getting hotter, but nowhere is getting hotter faster than the far north. And no one is feeling the effects more acutely than the animals and people who live there.

The polar bear has been left in a precarious position. As a species, they have adapted to life in the Arctic over thousands of generations. Inupiat hunters like Agnaboogok have adapted similarly, with elders collecting environmental knowledge since time immemorial and passing it along to those that succeed them. Their hunting strategies and traditions are based on a consistent climate, though, and the rate of change in the Arctic threatens to outpace our adaptive ability and that of the polar bear.

When Agnaboogok first went hunting as a boy, his elders taught him how to read the sky and water, how to look for the signs that bad weather was coming and which game animals could be expected to show up throughout the year. Much of that has changed over his 60 years. Calm seas, which used to last for weeks at a time, now turn stormy in a matter of hours, Agnaboogok told me. As a boy, he remembers harvesting walrus, bearded seal and beluga whale close to the village. Now, hunters often have to travel many miles to find game, spending more money on gas and more time on dangerous seas. As hunting has become more difficult, the people of Wales have become more reliant on the two stores in the village, both of which charge exorbitant prices. Buying more food means hunters need to work more, which gives them less time to hunt, which means they need to buy more food. And the cycle perpetuates itself.

What happens in the Arctic does not stay there. The frigid air that leaked out of the far north in February, crippling the power grid in Texas, is just the most recent example. More than 4.5 million people lost electricity, some for days, and at least 21 people died. The power went out in Texas for numerous reasons, but chief among them was that it wasn’t built to withstand extended temperatures below freezing.

The Loneliest Polar Bear | Penguin Random House

Like the polar bear and the people who live in the Arctic, our way of life, and the infrastructure that makes it possible, was created under a consistent climate. As the climate changes and extreme weather events happen more frequently, the fate of Texans threatens to become our own. Sea walls constructed to keep the ocean at bay will crumble as the ocean rises. Drought will put the livelihoods of farmers in jeopardy. Hurricanes, not directly caused by climate change, but supercharged by warming seas, will force millions to evacuate their homes. Some of them won’t have homes to come back to.

Reporting Nora’s story revealed the harsh realities of climate change. The worst ramifications of these changes will fall on the least fortunate, the people without cars who can’t flee a coming storm and those who can’t afford to move from the eroding coasts of the world.

But climate change is not a pass/fail proposition. Every action that we take, both individual and systemic, helps to decrease the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere that are trapping heat at the surface of our planet. To be sure, individual actions at this point will not alone stem the warming tide, only change on a global scale will. Success will be fleeting and hard to quantify, but to protect our most vulnerable ― people and polar bears alike ― the moral imperative on us is to at least try.