Review of the book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.
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A momentous two weeks of United Nations meetings that will shape the future of Earth’s climate have begun. The 21st annual UN Conference on Climate Change (also known as the Conference of Parties, or COP21) will unfold at Le Bourget, France, about six miles northeast of downtown Paris. COP21 is bringing together some 40,000 diplomats, scientists, journalists, and observers, as well as 151 heads of state--the largest such gathering of world leaders in history. This year’s meeting represents the best chance at a workable global agreement since Copenhagen--and perhaps our last chance for a long time to come. What makes COP21 so critical?

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Elizabeth Kolbert is a writer for the New Yorker magazine. A three-part series she wrote for the magazine in 2005 has been converted into a short, well-researched, and very readable book on climate change called, "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" ($15 from The science presented is excellent, and I couldn't find any errors. Kolbert visits leading climate change scientists in the field, spending time in the Arctic, Greenland, Dr. James Hansen's laboratory, and in United Nations climate change meetings. We get to see the science the way these scientists see it, which is a very powerful way to emphasize the major climate changes that are already underway on our planet.

Kolbert delivers a memorable description of a visit to Alaska, where record temperatures have begun melting permafrost that formed at the beginning of the last ice age, 120,000 years ago. She visits the remote island of Sarichef, five miles off the coast of the Seward Peninsula. A subsistence hunting village has existed there for centuries. However, the entire population of 591 must be relocated to the mainland because the island is eroding away. The problem? Lack of the customary sea ice in the fall has allowed storm surges from the powerful storms that hit during that season to push far inland. Kolbert talks to an Inuit hunter named John Keogak, who lives in Canada's Northwest Territories, 500 miles north of the Arctic circle. He and his fellow hunters started seeing robins for the first time a few years ago. The Inuits have no word for the bird in their language. Kolbert travels to "drunken forests" where the trees lean at crazy angles due to the collapse of the permafrost beneath. In one of many of the odd and amusing observations the book is sprinkled with, she writes:

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.

As the title implies, this is not a cheerful book, and Kolbert paints a gloomy picture of the how climate change is affecting the planet. I highly recommend the book for those interested in reading about climate change. Three and a half stars.

Melting permafrost at Elson Lagoon, Barrow, Alaska. Photo by wunderphotographer akalaska on August 11, 2005.