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Having stopped a mother bear with a tranquilizer dart shot from the helicopter, Derocher (with Andersen, left, and Instanes, on Spitsbergen Island) tethers the cubs and takes tissue samples to gauge the mother's exposure to industrial chemicals like PCBs. (Marla Cone)

Bear Trouble

Only hundreds of miles from the North Pole, industrial chemicals threaten the Arctic's greatest predator

Yet scientists remain cautious. Peter S. Ross of Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences, in Sidney, who is an authority on the effects of PCBs on marine mammals, says the evidence does not necessarily establish that the contaminants have caused the bears’ problems. Wild animals face so many natural and man-made challenges that it’s almost impossible to tease out one factor as the root problem. But Ross acknowledges that PCBs (and other pollutants) correlate with changes in animal physiology and have the potential to do harm.

Ross Norstrom, an environmental chemist at the Canadian Wildlife Service, worries most about the cubs. Perhaps cubs are dying from contamination, or perhaps the effect is more subtle, like altered hormones, Norstrom says. Weighing barely a pound at birth, a polar bear cub in Svalbard is hit with a blast of PCBs from its mother’s milk right when its immune and reproductive systems are developing. Norstrom believes that now, a quarter-century after PCBs were banned in most of the world, scientists are finally on the cusp of determining exactly what sorts of harm, if any, the chemicals have inflicted on the Arctic. The overall health of Svalbard’s bears is “at best unknown,” says Derocher, largely because of the difficulties of observing them in the wild.

Just before 9 p.m. in late April, Derocher and the Norwegian Polar Institute crew are done for the day, and Instanes pilots the helicopter back to town. To the north, the clouds are closing in, threatening a whiteout, but the way south is crystal clear.

The landscape looks almost voluptuous. Curvaceous peaks are bathed in soft light, awash in hues of icy blue and frosty white. Svalbard seems almost welcoming, as if it could enfold the team in a warm embrace. The three men are glowing with the satisfaction—and relief—of knowing they are headed back to camp in Longyearbyen for a hot dinner and warm bed after a long day. They captured six bears on a tank of fuel, and all are safe, men and bears.

Derocher peers out the chopper window. “Boy, it’s pretty when the light is like this,” he says. The pilot nods.

Derocher doesn’t mention it, but this is his last foray into Svalbard. He will soon head home to Canada to conduct research on polar bears in Canada for his alma mater, the University of Alberta. Seven years in Svalbard were not enough to definitively answer the question of the bears’ future. But then, this is a place of mystery, where compasses don’t work, where summer nights look like day and winter days look like night, where sometimes you cannot even tell up from down. But Derocher has learned enough to fear for the bears; he believes that a legacy of man-made pollution promises to haunt the Arctic—frozen in time, slow to heal—for generations to come.

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