Perspectives on change — climate change

  On the northern edge of Alaska, says journalist Charles Wohlforth, the impacts of human-caused climate change have become part of daily life. Spring is coming earlier, and Iñupiaq whaling crews are making ever-narrower escapes from cracking sea ice. In The Whale and the Supercomputer, Wohlforth looks at such changes from the perspectives of two very different — but intertwined — cultures. For generations, he writes, the Iñupiaq have observed the Alaskan climate, and many have gained a deep understanding of the subtle forces at work. In more recent years, climate scientists have also been paying close attention to the Arctic ice, snow and tundra.

In Barrow, Alaska, where Iñupiaq people have worked closely with scientists for decades, Wohlforth looks at the complex and surprising relationships between the two groups. Though Wohlforth criticizes some climate researchers for their obsession with computer models and their distance from the real, frozen world, he doesn’t dive for easy answers. Instead, he approaches both groups with respect and curiosity.

Wohlforth’s character portraits are wonderfully detailed, and never simplistic; Oliver Leavitt, a whaling-crew leader who appears early in the book, is revealed later to be "one of the most powerful men in Alaska," the chairman of a Native corporation and a strong supporter of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Wohlforth meanders through his material, stopping off to describe the international politics of whaling and the quirky habits of Arctic ecologists and snow scientists. It’s not until halfway through the book, for instance, that he supplies a primer on greenhouse gases. But his unpredictable structure is engaging, and his stories reflect off one another in satisfying ways. When it comes to something as large as global climate change, a series of small windows may provide the best view.

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change
Charles Wohlforth
322 pages, hardcover, $25. North Point Press, 2004.

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