The Whale and the Supercomputer

No one needs to convince the Iñupiag natives of Barrow, Alaska, who hunt whales from the coastal ice pack, that global warming is a reality. The coastal ice shelves that have formed at the beginning of every winter for as many generations as tribal memory contains now arrive later and later. The ice no longer lasts throughout the winter; now it is broken up and driven away by warmer water, stronger currents, and stronger storms. Traditional winter whaling from the ice is carried on only with greater and greater danger, increasing difficulty, and increasingly meager results.

The scientists who implement the grants, staff the research stations, gather the weather data, and study the plant and animal life of this region above the Arctic Circle also recognize this warming trend. They agree that a profound change has come to the delicately balanced polar region. While they may debate the relative weight of various root causes for what is happening, they are nearly unanimous in agreeing that the phenomenon is not likely to reverse itself.

Over the last several decades, the native way of life has changed, giving way to the means and methods of modern civilization. The scientists’ regard for the Iñupiag’s traditional ways of understanding their world has been changed as well. Charles Wohlforth writes of the individual modern natives who help conduct the scientific research and the individual scientists who have no doubt that even the most advanced computer models and the most massive collections of data do not come close to the native’s direct apprehension of the complexity of their environment.

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change deserves a place on the shelf with the best of contemporary environmental writing by the likes of John McPhee, David Quammen, and Bernd Heinrich. Wohlford makes the characters and personalities of the people he writes about come alive, and he makes the study of climatology understandable without detracting from its daunting complexity.