Book reflects on Alaska's climate changes

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

A generation ago, scientists examining worldwide temperature trends predicted the first place to feel the heat of climate change would be the arctic. So Alaska finds itself on the front line of this unprecedented environmental challenge.

The predictions came true: Insects decimate the Kenai Peninsula's forests; sea ice pulls away from shore, stranding hungry polar bears; villages wash away as rising waves gnaw the coast; and the oil industry curtails winter exploration activities on the North Slope as ice roads and permafrost melt.

Charles Wohlforth, a lifelong Alaskan and experienced journalist, explores aspects of climate change in "The Whale and the Supercomputer." He has created a thought-provoking and timely work on what may become the new century's greatest issue.

From Barrow (the book's hub) to Homer to Washington, D.C., he interviewed more than 200 people, put himself through a crash course in climatology and went out on the snow and ice to see for himself what is happening and how people are reacting.

"Let others parry and thrust with the skeptic's abstractions," he writes in his preface. "Here, instead, is climate change in the flesh, the story of individual people at their particular time and place, and what they saw with their eyes and felt in their bones."

The result is an unusual, nuanced and highly readable account of people's interactions with a changing natural world.

Wohlforth started out to write about climate science. But the story he found instead focuses on people. He examines how two distinct cultures, Inupiat whalers of Barrow and scientists researching arctic climate change, see the world in different ways and deal with the evolving situation and each other.

He portrays diverse players in this real-life drama through a series of vivid vignettes, searching conversations and thoughtful musings. He takes the reader along for bowhead whale hunts on the Arctic Ocean, a thousand-mile snowmachine trek from Nome to Barrow to collect snow samples and tours of research centers such as the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, Toolik Lake Field Camp and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Individuals come to the fore, especially Richard Glenn, a California-born former ice scientist who returned to his Inupiaq mother's hometown and became a whaling captain and community leader. The author credits Glenn as his guide to both cultures.

Wohlforth casts a wide net. He introduces dozens of people and travels around the nation. He follows many tangents, more or less salient, dealing with such diverse topics as a murder in Philadelphia, animal rights and Christian missionaries.

In the hands of a lesser writer, so much material could spin out of control. But Wohlforth writes with clarity, flow and an eye for personable detail. His prose includes adventure, flashes of wit and lyrical descriptions of the arctic's blue and white realm. Even as his narrative wanders, it is so engaging that the reader has no trouble keeping up.

Although he is not a scientist, he did his homework and had sources review all he wrote. That extra care shows. In addition, he has a knack for metaphors and analogies that explain even complex concepts in terms anyone can understand. For example, he explains the difference between weather and climate:

"Choosing shorts or long underwear on a particular day is about weather; the ratio of shorts to long underwear in the drawer is about climate."

An outsider in the two cultures, Wohlforth writes with a detached but observant eye, a touch of skepticism and obvious admiration for the sincerity, hard work and competence he encounters.

He shows particular empathy with Inupiat hunters. Their analysis of sea ice conditions, he concludes, results from generations of practical experience. Their grasp of the subject is so deep and subtle that one scientist likens villagers to human supercomputers.

At the other end of the spectrum, Wohlforth visits with geophysicists, botanists, computer modelers and others working to piece together climate's puzzles. He questions their efficacy while sympathizing with their urge to do good.

Society asks these scientists to predict the future. Translating the world's climate into mathematical equations is a task so enormous and complicated it may prove impossible. Researchers accumulate clues as they grapple with unprecedented changes over vast scales of time and place. The topic, the author concludes, tests the limitations of the scientific method.

Despite these problems, Wohlforth and nearly everyone he cites is convinced, by the book's end, that a crisis is at hand. Dan Endres, who monitors air at Barrow, showed him a graph covering 28 years, showing carbon dioxide levels and winter temperatures trending upward.

"It was an extraordinary graph, almost too clear and unequivocal to be true," Wohlforth says.

The presumption of climate change's reality and gravity underlie the entire book, but are not its focus. This is not a forecast of environmental doom, nor a discussion of the politics of denial, nor an explanation of climatology's arcane technicalities. It is an open-ended book about an open-ended topic.

The author strikes out in an original direction. He focuses on issues such as communications problems hampering society's response to this looming threat.

He notes that while figuring out causes is a job for science, figuring out what to do about climate change is very much a cultural issue.

Wohlforth has gone out on thin ice himself by tackling a difficult topic. He brings to the challenge caution, insight and communication skills scientists too often lack. The result is a fine book both enjoyable and important.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.



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