Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle -- April 18, 2004

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change

Charles Wohlforth
North Point Press, 322pp, $25.00

by Ian Garrick Mason

In 1997, Richard Glenn made a judgment. Co-captain (with his cousin Roy) of an Inupiaq whaling crew, he was standing 7 miles out on the shore-fast ice near Barrow, Alaska, with a dozen other crews, waiting for hunting boats to return with a freshly killed bowhead whale. As they waited, they noticed chunks of ice tumbling up to the surface of the water from below, and Roy mentioned the warning his grandfather had given him about such conditions. But other, older whalers were not leaving, and the trail back to shore looked safe, so Richard decided to stay. "I put my foot down. And right about the time I put my foot down was when the ice broke and we started heading out to sea at about two knots." Trapped on the moving ice were 154 whalers.

Judgment under uncertainty is a key theme in The Whale and the Supercomputer, Charles Wohlforth's remarkable new book on climate change and the Arctic. These are weighty topics, but Wohlforth, a longtime Alaska resident and writer, approaches them in a wonderfully readable manner, interweaving his journalistic accounts of native whalers and scientific researchers in a method reminiscent of books like Peter Steinhart's The Company of Wolves. And when he does depart from journalism into exposition, his language is balanced but vivid: "Thanks to this reflective quality, called albedo ... the snow over the top of the world cools the planet like a foil dashboard shade on a car parked in the hot sun." Never has the complicated science of climate change been presented so clearly.

Wohlforth spent a great deal of time in Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States. His depiction of the whalers is affectionate yet unsentimental -- as a native population, the Inupiat have not hesitated to take advantage of the practical benefits of Western science (snow machines, heating oil, VHF radios) and to participate and prevail in national and international political battles over oil wealth and whaling quotas ("It's a lot of goddamned work running a billion-dollar corporation," observes Oliver Leavitt, Inupiaq whaler and chairman of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.). Wohlforth's depiction of the research scientists -- both in Barrow and elsewhere -- is equally realistic. Watching ecologists pluck and sort tiny plants from clods of tundra for 14 hours a day at Toolik Lake Field Camp, Wohlforth reminds us that science is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration -- and another 50 percent writing grant proposals.

"They use science to prove things we already know," grumbles elder Warren Matumeak about the researchers he advises. But "knowing" can be a malleable concept. Despite the differences between the lived experience of Native Americans and the methodical analytics of scientists, both groups are struggling to understand and predict the same natural world, and both can be humbled by its dynamics and complexity. For whalers, it may be the approach of an unheralded storm or the sudden arrival of an ivu -- the collision of a massive ice floe against the shore-fast ice, which produces an earthquake-like shudder of destruction for those caught too close. For scientists, the vast complexity of climate systems has taught many of them the limitations of their generalized circulation models, those colorful but hypercomplicated simulations of the Earth that we see pictured in the newspaper after each climate conference. In such models, the number of possible variables is near infinite, while our understanding of the natural processes underlying each variable is in its infancy at best. Meanwhile, the unrelenting logic of chaotic systems, which declares that one can't possibly predict the future state of such a system without being impossibly accurate about its initial starting conditions, leaves science at a loss. "People don't understand the earth, but they want to, so they build a model, and then they have two things they don't understand," says Gerard Roe of the University of Washington.

This uncertainty, of course, has spawned endless scientific and political debate about the existence and nature of climate change. But Wohlforth wisely points out that though we can't create models that eliminate (or even reduce) the number of uncertainties, we can at least choose to "rank important certainties above trivial unknowns." After all, we do understand the dynamics of the mechanism that causes global warming, and we do understand the importance of greenhouse gases as a determinant of our planet's temperature, an importance second only to the sun. The global climate is like a massive machine with banks of labeled dials. We can't know for sure what the machine will produce when all the dials are turned in different directions, but we do know that we're deliberately cranking the second-biggest dial -- the one labeled "atmospheric CO2 content" -- far beyond any previous setting. And in doing so, we're performing an irreversible experiment with the only planet we've got.

By the quick action of the North Slope Borough's search and rescue helicopters, all the whalers were rescued that day on the ice. Glenn learned a hard lesson in humility and prudence, and in the difficulty of making certain judgments about nature. But if we, despite all our science and wealth, misjudge climate change here on Earth -- because as the prerequisite for action we require a level of certainty that we can never obtain -- who will come to rescue us?