Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Global warming has grown from a stir of concern over the last few decades to a threat manifesting itself in many parts of the world today. Elizabeth Kolbert has traveled around the world, visiting trouble spots where the evidence is apparent and seeking the advice of experts on location and others researching the phenomenon. The book is divided into two sections“Part I: Nature” and “Part II: Man.” These sections are followed by a chronology that begins with the invention by James Watt of the steam engine in 1769 and ends with global warming events noted in 2005. The book contains a selected bibliography and notes as well as an index.

Kolbert’s prose is clear and easy to read, and she effortlessly intertwines anecdotal stories of the effects being observed with hard scientific facts and figures. The melting of arctic ice is clearly not a future concern for the Inupiat people of the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, located on the island of Sarichef, only twenty-two miles above sea level. Kolbert visits the village and reports not only how the melting ice has caused annual subsistence hunting to become more dangerous but also a more serious result: The pack ice that used to serve as a buffer to shelter the village from storms no longer exists, and the village’s inhabitants have voted to be relocated, at a possible cost of $180 million dollars to the U.S. government. They may have to give up their traditional way of life.

Following this story of the real effects on people’s lives, Kolbert describes how the first major study on global warming was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences in 1979. At that time, only a few scientific groups had begun considering the effects of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere; climate modeling was still new. During a five-day meeting at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate concluded that climate change would result from rising levels of carbon dioxide. In the twenty-five years since this study was conducted, global warming has progressed according to the models.

Kolbert flies to Fairbanks, Alaska, to meet with geophysicist and permafrost expert Vladimir Romanovsky. They discuss the thawing of permafrost, and he shows her houses that have been abandoned because their foundations are sinking into holes where the permafrost used to support them. He also shows her trees that lean crazily for the same reasontheir underlying support has melted away, leaving holes in the earth.

In chapter 2, “A Warmer Sky,” Kolbert points out that although the concern for “global warming could be said to be a 1970’s idea; as pure science . . . it is much older than that.” As long ago as the 1850’s, John Tyndall, an Irish physicist studying the absorptive properties of gases in the atmosphere, uncovered what is now known as the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide.

Next Kolbert visits the Greenland ice sheet, where Konrad Steffen, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado, shares his findings with her. He has noted the appearance of liquid water from melting where none has existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Kolbert also travels to nearby Iceland to discuss glacier melt with experts there.

In chapter 4, “The Butterfly and the Toad,” Kolbert examines two species whose existence is being affected by climate change. One, the Comma butterfly of Europe, is appearing farther north of its previous rangeacquiring an astonishing fifty miles per decade of migration. On the other side of the range is the golden toad of north-central Costa Rica. This animal appears only at the top of mountain ranges within a very few miles. The breeding habits and early life of this amphibian made it extremely sensitive to any changes in rainfall, and the population was decimated by one unusually warm and dry spring in 1987. A few years later, no more were seen, and the animal is widely believed to be extinct now. Kolbert also discusses mosquitoes and how changing conditions are allowing the spread of these...

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The Christian Century 123, no. 23 (November 14, 2006): 46-49.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 868 (March 17, 2006): 123.

Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2006, p. R4.

Natural History 115, no. 4 (May, 2006): 58.

The New York Times 155 (March 16, 2006): E1-E9.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 48 (December 5, 2005): 39.

Science News 169, no. 13 (April 1, 2006): 207.

Scientific American 294, no. 5 (May, 2006): 90-93.

The Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 2006, pp. 28-29.