Review of the book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.
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Is this actionable knowledge? The answer for many is an, obvious, yes, because people, corporations and governments are taking actions. What is missing in action is any rational, national or global approach to reduce emissions and, therefore, to bound the changes to our weather and climate as incremental changes to our history of the past few centuries. This leads to a situation where the actions that we take are in many ways temporary patches, because over decades and the next few centuries, we will be reliably warming up and sea level will relentlessly rise. There is much more difficultly predicting changes to ecosystems, agriculture, pathogens, political systems and nations. This will require anticipation, to which models will contribute, and the willingness and flexibility to spend on adaptive strategies if we are to obtain societal stability. Those who view models as providing actionable knowledge are more likely to succeed. Otherwise, we will be like those who lived on the shore of modern Turkey at the end of last glacial period, chasing the retreating glaciers and their water into the mountains with their goats and sheep.

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The Heat is on in Greenland: Support the Dark Snow Project
By Dr. Jeff Masters

The heat is on in Greenland, where the temperature peaked at 73°F in Kangerlussuaq on June 15, close to the all-time hottest temperature ever recorded in Greenland of 78.6°F, set in 2013. The unusual warmth this year melted nearly 40% of the Greenland Ice Sheet in mid-June, and scientists with the Dark Snow Project are on the ice right now conducting a two-month field experiment on the causes and implications of Greenland ice melt.

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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 amazon.com). 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.