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...
(The entire section is 1655 words.)
“Adding carbon dioxide, or any other greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere by, say, burning fossil fuels or leveling forests is, in the language of climate science, an anthropogenic forcing. Since preindustrial times, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen by roughly a third, from 280 to 378 parts per million. During the same period, the concentration of methane has more than doubled, from .78 to 1.76 parts per million. Scientists measure forcings in terms of watts per square meter, or w/m2, by which they mean that a certain number of watts have been added (or, in the case of a negative forcing, like aerosols, subtracted) for every single square meter of the earth’s surface. The size of the greenhouse forcing is estimated, at this point, to be 2.5 w/m2. A miniature Christmas light gives off about four tenths of a watt of energy, mostly in the form of heat, so that, in effect (as Sophie supposedly explained to Connor), we have covered the earth with tiny bulbs, six for every square meter. These bulbs are burning twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, year in and year out. If greenhouse gases were held constant at today’s levels, it is estimated that it would take several decades for the full impact of the forcing that is already in place to be felt. This is because raising the earth’s temperature involves not only warming the air and the surface of the land but also melting sea ice, liquefying glaciers, and, most significant, heating the oceans, all processes that require tremendous amounts of energy. (Imagine trying to thaw a gallon of ice cream or warm a pot of water using an Easy-Bake oven.) The delay that is built into the system is, in a certain sense, fortunate. It enables us, with the help of climate models, to foresee what is coming and therefore to prepare for it. But in another sense it is clearly disastrous, because it allows us to keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere while fobbing the impacts off on our children and grandchildren.”
― Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe