book review: silent snow

April 18, 2006

in Books


Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s landmark book about the ecological devastation of chemicals and pesticides, alerted the public to the lurking dangers of the toxins around them.  Nearly 45 years later, reporter Marla Cone’s Silent Snow renders a very similar picture, only this time the dangers are piling up in an area that is hardly next door to many of us: the Arctic.  And while far from the world’s population centers, the frightening poisoning of the top of the world has implications for the entire global community.

Cone is a prizewinning writer for the Los Angeles Times. Her reporting is excellent, her facts well-documented and
explanations concise, but her article-based journalism background was clear.  This book read like a deep investigative piece that was stretched into a book.  For example, one chapter on the cultural importance of traditional foods to Arctic people would have done the  trick.  Yet she came back to this point many times, without bringing anything new to the topic, and it became redundant and distracting.  I found that despite her efforts to relay personal stories in Silent Snow, Cone was unsuccessful in bringing much warmth or real humanity to the book.  The subject matter and implications of Silent Snow are nearly as vital as those in Silent Spring, but Cone lacks the artistry and grace in her writing that made Carson’s work much more readable and classic.

Even with these shortcomings, which many readers won’t find as annoying as I did, Silent Snow is a compelling book.  Cone clearly explains the seeming paradox of one of the world’s most remote and pristine-appearing places being one of the most contaminated by modern and industrial chemicals. (For the curious, PCBs, for example, that become vaporized travel on air currents and end up near the North Pole. When air temperature cools, toxins condense and fall to the ground.  In warmer climates, they re-vaporize as temperatures rise, but about two-thirds of the PCBs that arrive in the Arctic stay in Arctic, often only moving as far as to the edge of the ice floes.)

She spends time going over the ethical health care dilemma faced by Canadian scientists. Do they warn native Arctic peoples to stop eating their traditional foods, which are responsible for toxin loads in some  people that qualify their bodies as hazardous waste?  Or do the health benefits of traditional foods, which have kept these populations virtually free of heart disease, for example, outweigh the risk from toxins?  This is complicated by the cultural importance of native foods, and the lack of affordable alternatives in a land where farming is impossible.

This neatly illustrates that the impacts of contamination are not limited to humans, because humans are at the end of the line of consumers in Arctic ecosystems.  Studying wildlife in the Arctic is challenging to say the least, but Cone visits with scientists who have been working with seals, whales, and polar bears and trying to document the effects of chemical contamination on these and other creatures. One does not finish Silent Snow feeling any optimism for the fate
of polar bears; if high toxin loads compromising their immune systems and altering their hormones don’t doom them, global warming will.

Finally, Cone describes various efforts (or lack thereof) of industrial nations to curb chemical contamination, and what the future might hold. Sympathetic while still being objective, accurate and authentic, Cone has written an important book that it a must-read. After reading it, the Arctic doesn’t seem so far away, but it’s enormous problems feel dangerously close — perhaps, after all, right next door.

Clare April 19, 2006 at 5:43 pm

There is a growing awareness of the problem of contaminents up here, you'd be hard pressed to find someone here that doesn't know that they exist. For most adults I imagine it would take a lot to get them to turn away from country food, so closely are they tied to the land, to hunting, and to living off the land's resources. Even with the warnings of the growing contaminents there seems to be little in the way of people stopping enjoying country food.

And we are right next door by the way. Just a plane ride away. Tea's on.

Cindy April 20, 2006 at 10:08 pm

just when I finally whittle my amazon list down, you post another 'must read' book..
pick me up on your way to Clares 😉

mrsfalcon April 28, 2006 at 12:15 am

A few years ago, I was involved in a study of heavy metals in peregrine falcons. Although we focused on metals in the blood of falcons nesting at utility sites, we also trapped some arctic migrants at banding stations along the Mississippi flyway. They had much levels of blood mercury roughly double that of the falcons we studied in the upper midwest. I had heard about mercury contamination in the arctic but was still shocked by the levels of mercury in the arctic birds.

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