Field Notes From a Catastrophe
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Bloomsbury £14.99, pp210
For a bunch of alleged bloodsuckers, pitcher-plant mosquitoes turn out to be a bit of a disappointment. They're wimps, really. They never snack on the veins of animals and never cluster in swarms round human victims. Instead, they spend their lives lurking inside a species of American plant, the purple pitcher, and rarely emerge from it.
It's not much of a life: no blood, no daylight, no fun. It's a bit like being a film critic, I imagine. We shouldn't sneer at Wyeomyia smithii, however. This strange little insect has a message for the world. And it's a fairly alarming one.
Every autumn, pitcher-plant mosquitoes go into diapause, their equivalent of hibernation. The process is fixed by the creature's genes and triggered when daylight hours drop below a certain level. Seems simple. But scientists based at the University of Oregon have recently discovered a change in the habits of Wyeomyia smithii. It transpires that, over the past three decades, the insect has delayed its diapause for longer and longer, as the North American climate has heated up. And that is highly significant, author Elizabeth Kolbert writes in Field Notes From a Catastrophe. Daylight hours have not changed in the last 30 years, so the only alteration that can account for this delayed diapause is a genetic one. Natural selection is shaping Wyeomyia smithii so it can take advantage of our warming planet. 'Global warming has begun to drive evolution,' she states.
So the next time some fathead tells you evolution is just a theory, tell them about pitcher-plant mosquitoes. More important, tell him, or her, to be afraid, to be very afraid, for if manmade climate change is producing evolutionary change in squitty, little mozzies, we can be sure the effects for humanity will be much worse. Indeed, our chances of surviving the global heating we are inducing by pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere look positively grim, according to Kolbert. As she says: 'It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.'
Such claims would be unsupportable if they were based on the example of only one insect, but Kolbert has far more in her armoury than the fate of the pitcher-plant mosquito. Her thesis is solid, built on dozens of similar stories, each calmly outlined and related in such measured terms that it is impossible not to be ensnared by her polemic.
Kolbert, a staff writer on the New Yorker, has spent the past two years hunting down the detritus of our overheating world: the twisted roads of Alaska that are being wrecked by melting permafrost; the ruined cities of ancient Babylon, struck by the Curse of Akkad, a drought which we now know was caused by climate change; the civil engineers of the Netherlands struggling to cope with the rising waters that threaten to engulf their country; the Mountain Ringlet butterfly, which is now vanishing from its last hillside refuges in Scotland and the Lake District; and Antarctic ice cores that show our planet has never been hotter at any time in the past one million years. And the Met men say there is more to come.
Then there are the scientists. Most are cautious, but clearly worried. 'We've got one planet and we are heading it in a direction that, quite fundamentally, we don't know what the consequences are going to be,' says Chris Thomas of York University. A few are more direct, such as physicist Marty Hoffert of New York University. 'We are going to burn everything up; we're going to heat the atmosphere to the temperature it was in the Cretaceous period, when there were crocodiles at the poles. And everything will collapse,' he tells Kolbert.
And, finally, there are the politicians. In probably the most chilling passage of her book, Kolbert relates the outcome of a 15-minute interview she is granted with Paula Dobriansky, US Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs, the woman given the particularly unenviable task of explaining the Bush administration's position on global warming and outline the reasons for America's refusal to curb its vast output of carbon dioxide. Dobriansky's only message is endlessly to repeat the mantra 'we act, we learn, we act again', and to insist economic growth 'is the solution, not the problem'.
Thus, the world's greatest power, when asked to show moral leadership and to set an example to other nations, evades its responsibilities and hides behind a curtain of deceit. How Kolbert resisted slapping Dobriansky is a mystery. It would certainly have made a perfect ending to her book. Not that I am complaining. As it is, Field Notes is a wonderful read, a superbly crafted, diligently compressed vision of a world spiralling towards destruction. It should be a wake-up call to the world. Sadly, it feels more like an obituary.
Morris Kiyutelluk, who is sixty-five, has lived in Shishmaref almost all his life. (His last name, he told me, means "without a wooden spoon.") I spoke to him while I was hanging around the basement of the village church, which also serves as the unofficial headquarters for a group called the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition. "The first time I heard about global warming, I thought, I don't believe those Japanese," Kiyutelluk told me. "Well, they had some good scientists, and it's become true."
The National Academy of Sciences undertook its first major study of global warming in 1979. At that point, climate modeling was still in its infancy, and only a few groups, one led by Syukuro Manabe at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and another by James Hansen at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had considered in any detail the effects of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Still, the results of their work were alarming enough that President Jimmy Carter called on the academy to investigate. A nine-member panel was appointed. It was led by the distinguished meteorologist Jule Charney, of MIT, who, in the 1940s, had been the first meteorologist to demonstrate that numerical weather forecasting was feasible.
The Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, or the Charney panel, as it became known, met for five days at the National Academy of Sciences' summer study center, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Its conclusions were unequivocal. Panel members had looked for flaws in the modelers' work but had been unable to find any. "If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible," the scientists wrote. For a doubling of CO2 from preindustrial levels, they put the likely global temperature rise at between two and a half and eight degrees Fahrenheit. The panel members weren't sure how long it would take for changes already set in motion to become manifest, mainly because the climate system has a built-in time delay. The effect of adding CO2 to the atmosphere is to throw the earth out of "energy balance." In order for balance to be restored-as, according to the laws of physics, it eventually must be-the entire planet has to heat up, including the oceans, a process, the Charney panel noted, that could take "several decades." Thus, what might seem like the most conservative approach-waiting for evidence of warming to make sure the models were accurate-actually amounted to the riskiest possible strategy: "We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable."
It is now more than twenty-five years since the Charney panel issued its report, and, in that period, Americans have been alerted to the dangers of global warming so many times that reproducing even a small fraction of these warnings would fill several volumes; indeed, entire books have been written just on the history of efforts to draw attention to the problem. (Since the Charney report, the National Academy of Sciences alone has produced nearly two hundred more studies on the subject, including, to name just a few, "Radiative Forcing of Climate Change," "Understanding Climate Change Feedbacks," and "Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming.") During this same period, worldwide carbon-dioxide emissions have continued to increase, from five billion to seven billion metric tons a year, and the earth's temperature, much as predicted by Manabe's and Hansen's models, has steadily risen. The year 1990 was the warmest year on record until 1991, which was equally hot. Almost every subsequent year has been warmer still. As of this writing, 1998 ranks as the hottest year since the instrumental temperature record began, but it is closely followed by 2002 and 2003, which are tied for second; 2001, which is third; and 2004, which is fourth. Since climate is innately changeable, it's difficult to say when, exactly, in this sequence natural variation could be ruled out as the sole cause. The American Geophysical Union, one of the nation's largest and most respected scientific organizations, decided in 2003 that the matter had been settled. At the group's annual meeting that year, it issued a consensus statement declaring, "Natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures." As best as can be determined, the world is now warmer than it has been at any point in the last two millennia, and, if current trends continue, by the end of the century it will likely be hotter than at any point in the last two million years.
In the same way that global warming has gradually ceased to be merely a theory, so, too, its impacts are no longer just hypothetical. Nearly every major glacier in the world is shrinking; those in Glacier National Park are retreating so quickly it has been estimated that they will vanish entirely by 2030. The oceans are becoming not just warmer but more acidic; the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is diminishing; animals are shifting their ranges poleward; and plants are blooming days, and in some cases weeks, earlier than they used to. These are the warning signs that the Charney panel cautioned against waiting for, and while in many parts of the globe they are still subtle enough to be overlooked, in others they can no longer be ignored. As it happens, the most dramatic changes are occurring in those places, like Shishmaref, where the fewest people tend to live. This disproportionate effect of global warming in the far north was also predicted by early climate models, which forecast, in column after column of FOR TRAN-generated figures, what today can be measured and observed directly: the Arctic is melting.
Most of the land in the Arctic, and nearly a quarter of all the land in the Northern Hemisphere-some five and a half billion acres-is underlaid by zones of permafrost. A few months after I visited Shishmaref, I went back to Alaska to take a trip through the interior of the state with Vladimir Romanovsky, a geophysicist and permafrost expert. I flew into Fairbanks-Romanovsky teaches at the University of Alaska, which has its main campus there-and when I arrived, the whole city was enveloped in a dense haze that looked like fog but smelled like burning rubber. People kept telling me that I was lucky I hadn't come a couple of weeks earlier, when it had been much worse. "Even the dogs were wearing masks," one woman I met said. I must have smiled. "I am not joking," she told me.
Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city, is surrounded on all sides by forest, and virtually every summer lightning sets off fires in these forests, which fill the air with smoke for a few days or, in bad years, weeks. In the summer of 2004, the fires started early, in June, and were still burning two and a half months later; by the time of my visit, in late August, a record 6.3 million acres-an area roughly the size of New Hampshire-had been incinerated. The severity of the fires was clearly linked to the weather, which had been exceptionally hot and dry; the average summertime temperature in Fairbanks was the highest on record, and the amount of rainfall was the third lowest.
On my second day in Fairbanks, Romanovsky picked me up at my hotel for an underground tour of the city. Like most permafrost experts, he is from Russia. (The Soviets more or less invented the study of permafrost when they decided to build their gulags in Siberia.) A broad man with shaggy brown hair and a square jaw, Romanovsky as a student had had to choose between playing professional hockey and becoming a geophysicist. He had opted for the latter, he told me, because "I was little bit better scientist than hockey player." He went on to earn two master's degrees and two Ph.D.s. Romanovsky came to get me at ten A.M.; owing to all the smoke, it looked like dawn.
Any piece of ground that has remained frozen for at least two years is, by definition, permafrost. In some places, like eastern Siberia, permafrost runs nearly a mile deep; in Alaska, it varies from a couple of hundred feet to a couple of thousand feet deep. Fairbanks, which is just below the Arctic Circle, is situated in a region of discontinuous permafrost, meaning that the city is pocked with regions of frozen ground. One of the first stops on Romanovsky's tour was a hole that had opened up in a patch of permafrost not far from his house. It was about six feet wide and five feet deep. Nearby were the outlines of other, even bigger holes, which, Romanovsky told me, had been filled with gravel by the local public-works department. The holes, known as thermokarsts, had appeared suddenly when the permafrost gave way, like a rotting floorboard. (The technical term for thawed permafrost is "talik," from a Russian word meaning "not frozen.") Across the road, Romanovsky pointed out a long trench running into the woods. The trench, he explained, had been formed when a wedge of underground ice had melted. The spruce trees that had been growing next to it, or perhaps on top of it, were now listing at odd angles, as if in a gale. Locally, such trees are called "drunken." A few of the spruces had fallen over. "These are very drunk," Romanovsky said.
In Alaska, the ground is riddled with ice wedges that were created during the last glaciation, when the cold earth cracked and the cracks filled with water. The wedges, which can be dozens or even hundreds of feet deep, tended to form in networks, so when they melt, they leave behind connecting diamond- or hexagon-shaped depressions. A few blocks beyond the drunken forest, we came to a house where the front yard showed clear signs of ice-wedge melt-off. The owner, trying to make the best of things, had turned the yard into a miniature-golf course. Around the corner, Romanovsky pointed out a house-no longer occupied-that basically had split in two; the main part was leaning to the right and the garage toward the left. The house had been built in the sixties or early seventies; it had survived until almost a decade ago, when the permafrost under it started to degrade. Romanovsky's mother-in-law used to own two houses on the same block. He had urged her to sell them both. He pointed out one, now under new ownership; its roof had developed an ominous-looking ripple. (When Romanovsky went to buy his own house, he looked only in permafrost-free areas.)
"Ten years ago, nobody cared about permafrost," he told me. "Now everybody wants to know." Measurements that Romanovsky and his colleagues at the University of Alaska have made around Fairbanks show that the temperature of the permafrost in many places has risen to the point where it is now less than one degree below freezing. In places where the permafrost has been disturbed, by roads or houses or lawns, much of it is already thawing. Romanovsky has also been monitoring the permafrost on the North Slope and has found that there, too, are regions where the permafrost is very nearly thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. While thermokarsts in the roadbeds and talik under the basement are the sort of problems that really only affect the people right near-or above-them, warming permafrost is significant in ways that go far beyond local real estate losses. For one thing, permafrost represents a unique record of long-term temperature trends. For another, it acts, in effect, as a repository for greenhouse gases. As the climate warms, there is a good chance that these gases will be released into the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming. Although the age of permafrost is difficult to determine, Romanovsky estimates that most of it in Alaska probably dates back to the beginning of the last glacial cycle. This means that if it thaws, it will be doing so for the first time in more than a hundred and twenty thousand years. "It's really a very interesting time," Romanovsky told me. . . .Continue reading the main story