Focus; The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change
In this part of focus 580 will be returning to a topic that we certainly have discussed many times before on the show and that global climate change we've tried to come at it from a variety of perspectives mostly talking about what's going on on a kind of a global scale we'd have done some conversations about what climate change means for the Midwest in this part of focus will be concentrating on a different part of the United States part that's a long way away from here where we live but where the effects of climate change and warming at least in the last couple of decades have been pronounced and more so certainly than in this part of the country and what we're talking about is Alaska the Arctic very specifically. And I guess for the show is Charles Wolfe earth. He's a journalist who makes his home in Anchorage and he's the author of a recently published book it's titled The Whale and the super computer on the northern front of climate change. It's published by Northpoint press and what the book tries to do is take a look at climate change in this part of the world and what it means for the people who live there and have lived there for a long time. Making their living off an off the land and also another group of individuals and that's the scientists who have come there to try to apply the most modern science and high tech to studying these issue how it is that these two groups of people kind of observe one another and the things that perhaps each manages to learn from the other. So you can see in the title kind of the idea of the the sometimes clash between nature and science and people who specialize in living both of those ways. It's an interesting book both for the portrait it paints of the scientists who are doing this work and also for the picture that it paints of native people there and how they live their lives. So the book is out there in the bookstore if you're interested in taking a look at it. Our guest Charles Wolfe earth began his writing career at a weekly newspaper in an Alaskan fishing village and then developed is writing doing freelance travel guides and articles for The New Republic for outside other magazines. He's joining us this morning by telephone as we talk. Questions are welcome. 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 that's for Champaign-Urbana folks we do also have a toll free line. And that's good anywhere that you can hear us. And that is eight hundred to 2 2 9 4 5 5 at any point hear questions or welcome the opening we ask callers as people just try to be brief so we can get in as many as possible.
Most of all for a fellow I thanks for talking with us. My pleasure. We certainly appreciate it. So how long have you lived in Alaska.
Well pretty much all my life is three years old it's just about makes me a lifelong Alaskan I think almost almost a native.
Yeah. And tell me about the place that you live.
Well I live in Anchorage which is on the southern coast in what we call south central Alaska on the Gulf of Alaska. And it's a it's a beautiful place to live.
You know we can ski right from our house and cross-country ski and it's got great biking and and boating here and it's just love it here and I would really never live anywhere else.
Let's talk specifically about what's been happening with the temperatures there over the last few decades. I think one of the things that we we seem to know with a fair amount of certainty is that the average global temperature over the last century. We're relatively speaking that's that's the the period we have good records over the last hundred years average global temperature has gone up by about one degree. Fahrenheit and that we also know that some of the warmest years have occurred recently in terms of global averages. But what will you see if you take a look at the area where you live. Is that an. And I think this is something that scientists actually did predict that the warming there there has been warming but it has been even more significant than that of a lot more than just one degree over a hundred years it's been several degrees over the last couple of decades.
That's right in if you take the wintertime temperature in interior Alaska that's plus seven degrees over the last couple decades from the long term average. And there are different amounts of warming in different parts of Alaska. But in general it's quite dramatic in those averages were have been calculated a couple years ago we've had a series of extremely warm winters and summers since then so it's a continuing trend. And the temperature increases which are sufficient to cause pretty dramatic changes in the ecology. You know it really doesn't take a huge temperature change to change the way a forest looks big. For example in our area of Alaska there are beetles that attack spruce trees that they just they just needed a couple of degrees warmer in the spring time to take off and become extremely aggressive beetles that really hadn't been much noticed before and it happened in the 1880s and that temperature threshold was reached at that point and it's never gone back down again and so we had a 4 million acre die off of spruce trees in our part of the state which is the largest die off of trees anywhere in the country ever. So it's something that you know seven degrees might not sound like much on a particular day. But when it's an average it has a profound effect on what the place is like.
Well there's one thing that I imagine people would associate with Alaska it would be snow. And I know that you have talked to some people that were studying snow fall in snow cover. Has that been affected and has the the duration of the snow cover you know that has when it first starts in the fall and when you get your melt in the spring. Has that changed.
Yes to medically and. It's changed all over Alaska. The farther north you go the more dramatic that effect Tuns. But you know that the reason I first got interested in writing about this subject was that I noticed in my home here in Anchorage that the winters were shorter and warmer and more frequently we lost our snow which when I was a child was unheard of. And it's in the book when I was a kid we you always used to have to wear a heavy snow suit over our Halloween costumes and went trick or treating because we were usually you know wading through snow and no that's not the case anymore and in fact in the last several years my kids haven't had to wear any kind of coat they could wear their custom so I looked around and. Something is changing you know we're losing our skiing earlier in the year. Our sled dog races are being canceled more frequently where previously they were never canceled. What's going on and started talking to scientists about what they were studying and found that well yes indeed this was a predicted aspect of climate change that would hit the north first and it was a matter of very intense scientific study up here.
So why is it that it has the effect is more pronounced in the northern latitudes than it is say where we live here in the central part of the United States.
Well it's something that is it is one of those neat things. It's not that hard to understand but you never really think of it until someone explains it to you. The snow in ice is of course white and that means it reflects the sun back up into the sky. If you think about it. Just how much a darker thing heats up in the sun that sort of the effect that I'm talking about. So if you've got the sun heating you know it reflects about 80 percent plus of that energy back into the sky. And then you know back into space so that that he'd never get to the ground too to warm up the earth. If you've got open water that's more than 90 percent of the light that hits it is absorbed by the earth on the say ground. It's you know regular vegetative ground it's what 80 percent is absorbed. Only 20 percent is reflected. So it is the snow melts and you have less snow in the ground. You have an increasing amount of the ground which is absorbing larger amounts of energy from the sun. And you know in most parts of the world that the winter is now long and the amount of snow on the ground isn't that great. So this isn't such a dramatic effect.
But up here the snow you know at least formally was on the ground most of the year as that back because of the climate is warming it causes the earth to absorb more energy from the sun for a longer period of the year. And that in turn causes the snow to melt back further. So it's what's called a feedback loop.
As the climate has started to change that caused this intensification or amplification of the change in the Arctic region which makes it warm faster here it also makes it very important for the rest of the world what happens here because it's tending to warm up the whole world. It just you know this is called the albedo effect albedo just means whiteness a reflectiveness. And scientists believe in the past. This effect has really turned the whole earth into a snowball many millions of years ago.
In other words there's more snow covering where the earth cools quickly in a cascade runaway effect and when the snow melts it tends to accelerate in a very you know in a feedback loop effect that gets to the question that I'm sure that is on a lot of people's minds and that is that scientists have various ways to look back into the past and to try to make some assessment of what climate of the earth was not just 100 years ago but thousands if not more. Years ago a long long time ago. And what we see is there are periods where there are wide swings. In the temperature there are periods when it's hot warmer. There are periods when it's cold colder and we have these swings and I think the question a lot of people have when you're looking at the kind of changes in temperature that we have seen over the last century is well is that just part of a natural cycle that the planet goes through and that they're going to be tough colder times and they're going to be warmer times or IAS what we have seen here something different from what we've seen before. And then the big question is is that the result of human activity the warming that we have seen.
Right. Well I have no doubt in my mind that there are no natural variations in swings and cycles in temperature upward and downward and it's very possible that part of the warming we're seeing is part is influenced by that but let me give you the case for why there's a high probability that in part human caused or are mainly human caused. First of all when we look into the past that for the last 400 thousand years ago we're able to see not only what the temperature was like but also how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere and carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas that we emit from burning fossil fuels that causes greenhouse the greenhouse effect of the warming. That is the problem we're talking about.
For in the way we're able to know this is because drilling into ice cores in an Arctic in Greenland and even here in Alaska and pulling bubbles out from it's been frozen for you know hundreds of thousands of years and then analyzing the at the Sea gas in the bubbles of the atmosphere as it was back in the past for the last 400 thousand years is not of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was between 180 and 280 parts per million since we started burning fossil fuels we've had crews increase that number from 280 to about 380 parts per million now. So we've made an enormous increase in the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of our burning of fossil fuels. Now during the 400000 years talking about Earth went through a series of ice ages where ice covered most of North America at times and it melted away back at other times. Those were those were in correlation or were were timed with the increases and decreases in carbon dioxide. So that amount of change in the carbon dioxide was capable of changing the climate by that degree. So that's something that tells us yes we have an unprecedented increase in carbon dioxide during our. Industrial period and yes we know that changes in carbon dioxide cause enormous changes in the climate. No the other strand of evidence that comes from the paleoclimate or ancient climate study is that the changes in temperature over the past appear to have been fairly gradual and smooth. In other words you had a sort of a sine curve going up and down that was not drastic. Well the changes in temperature we're seeing in the last 50 years are not anything but some of the sharp upward jerk. And that's really not consistent with sort of the natural cycle. So if you put all the evidence together to me it seems very improbable that you could say that. Well you put it this huge amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but no that's not having any effect. What we don't know is how much we are causing and how much nature is causing. But it would seem to me that probably we're causing most of it.
Our guest in this part of focus 580 is Charles Wolfe earth. He's journalists he makes his home in Anchorage Alaska and has written for a number of publications he's done travel writing for people who are interested in going to Alaska he's also written articles for a new republic outside other magazines his book that deals with the specifically with the effects of climate change on the Arctic is titled The Whale and the supercomputer on the northern front of climate change. And the book is published by Northpoint press and questions are welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5. Toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5.
Let's talk a little bit about the the indigenous people who they and their forebears have been living there for a long long time and talk a little bit about what the climate changes that we've talked about. I mean for them and the way that they live their lives.
Well I really didn't know what a big thing was happening for these people until I started researching the book and then I found out that they were by far the most interesting part of it and and one I mean the simple reason for that but one is that these people are going through what I expect everyone on earth will be going through perhaps in a few decades. They are having to adapt to making major changes in their lifestyle because of climate change. And in a sense the forerunners of the rest of the human race in that respect. And the reason for that is both we discussed about how it's warming so much more there and also there live in a place where you know that the land and sea are really solid only when it's below freezing. They use the sea ice as other people use the land they hunt on it and they travel on it in the land is kind of mushy on top and then frozen underneath and it's easy to travel on only when it's frozen. And so when the temperature gets too high it really creates wreaks havoc on their on their world. The main part of their lifestyle is based on hunting bowhead whales in the bowhead is a population that migrate past a northern Alaska into the Arctic north of Canada and I hasten to add it's a healthy population which is increasing and they both head hunted by the Eskimos it's regulated by the International Whaling Commission and that is their hunters supported by Greenpeace and all the other environmental organizations because if they've been at it for for over a thousand years and it is the fundamental and most important central part of their culture socially spiritually and it's also very important in the food that they eat.
And if so when Will Hunting with them several times and I observed a amazing amount of danger that they're facing because of the ice becoming less stable and less secure and the extraordinary adventure that they are facing in trying to adapt there that's that's part of the story that I think is I think both parts of the stories are interesting I mean when you go and you learn about the scientists in their work but I that to me I think that perhaps the story of how the native people there live is is even more compelling.
Maybe it's just because it is so different from the life that I'm sure everybody almost everybody who had read the book would limp. But there it might be interesting to talk a little bit about about whale hunting and the way that they do it because it's it's perhaps not what people would imagine that what they're doing is that they're going after these whales in relatively small boats. Spearing them and then what they literally have to do is haul the whale by by human power to haul the whale out of the water onto the ice that's along the water and then use that is the place where they can take it in and cut it into pieces and and make it handle. Also then everybody can can get their share of meat and the stuff that you can use from from the well. And that also is one of the reasons why if the ice is not stable that can make this whole business so dangerous because you rely on having a very solid platform to work on and if it's not it can it can be very dangerous and there are stories in the book about people who are out doing various kinds of things working on the ice when it broke off and started to float away and they didn't even know it. They they were apparently out a piece that was so big that they were just drunk they were going about doing what they were doing and they didn't even know that they were floating off out into the water until someone came to rescue them. So maybe you could talk a little bit. But about how it is they hunt well.
Yes well they hunt the whale in very much the same way that they their forefathers were to do it.
Around 1000 earth or twelve hundred eighty in it involves building a skin boat which is originally would have been made of driftwood and know they would use lumber for a frame and then cut the skin of the graft which is the bearded seal covering it and it might be about 14 or 15 feet long and it dragged to the I said to it could be three miles or even up to twelve or fifteen miles from shore on trails that have to be chipped out of the ice and keep in mind we're talking about lake ice here. Ice build up into these huge pressure ridges which are like little mountains and the whalers will go out there with picks and mass to those to build the trail so they can get their equipment pulled behind a snow machine out today I said and then very quietly and following that is the traditional. Rules which call for humility and silence and harmony between the people there wait to see a whale come along. Essentially it's an ambush they will build a blind device and they'll all wear white and when it will it spotted it.
The whalers very quickly get into the skin boat and paddle after the whale so they they have to be one reason they have to be stealthy is because they can't paddle assesses the whale can swim and then they have to put the boat basically right on the whale back or within touching distance next to the well and these are whales that could be 50 60 even 70 feet long and weigh more than a tractor trailer for a road on the highway and then they throw the harpoon into the well and catch it and traditionally.
After that we'll have tired. One of the men would climb onto the well back and walk on it and then plunge a Lansdowne into a sensitive part of it. One of the last men who knew how to do that and who did it regularly died in an accident a few years ago. An old man in No mostly other technology used to kill the well because a well a bit faster. So then what's the whale is dead it's pulled to shore by many boats working together and the rope is tied around the tail and the entire community comes out and pulls the whale out of the water using a block and tackle which is just an amazing experience I got to participate in this a few times and I put some pictures of it on my website that will and supercomputer dot com and this one particular whale I helped with the Turks It took us about six hours of steady work by about 200 people to pull it out of the water onto the ice. Very important to find a solid piece of ice because otherwise it will break in the well fall back into the water and then it took another perhaps another 12 or 14 hours to cut that well up into pieces that could be distributed to everyone in the community because they they don't believe any one person can own a whale. After all the work of catching a whale food is all distributed freely. And it was just such an amazingly rewarding experience to be involved in a community that works together in that way for everyone's joint benefit. And. And also really interesting to see the whaling crew in the you know the family of the captain who work they put their entire years work into doing this hunt and then they they have to work so hard to get the whale out of the water and then they prepare the food their share and serve it to anyone who comes to their door. And I was with a family where the women were just finishing up getting ready to prepare getting ready to serve they prepared just who did the working for maybe 48 hours straight without a break in the food was already there and they prayed and the tears are just streaming down their faces and. And one of them turned to me and said This is the happiest day of her life. Which just shows you the power of this whale in their culture that you know to do all this work in order to give it away is the most wonderful day for them.
So anyway the hazard of course comes in the fact that you're out there on the sea ice in the sea ice can break off and float into the ocean or it can be you can have a collision of different pieces in each other. And because of the warming of the climate. The ice is become much less predictable and as I was hunting with the crews frequently every day sometimes twice a day it had to be a pedia escape because of the danger of a break off or of a collision and then the day that I left. As you mentioned I did break off all along the shore and about 100 whalers floated out to sea and didn't know it until somebody tried to get back to the village and found out that there was a big crack of water behind them it was impossible and helicopters were brought in and a very heroic rescue was affected which included you know the helicopters having to find their way through the fog to where the people were on the ice and then they couldn't land on the ice because the helicopter was too heavy so they had to keep the rotors running while they gingerly touched down and people got on the helicopter and then they would take a cable and string it through the skis of the snow machines and sled so they would carry like a necklace of snow machines under the helicopter fly back to the beach put everybody down and then go out for another trip and kept us going all night long until they had brought in you know all of the people safely in and most of their crib and some of the crew was lost into the ocean. And then just to tell you the importance of whaling to them they were soon back out there again going back to work pursuing the whale again.
Yeah it's. You tell the talk in the book about the fact that now that there are there are large pieces of ice that are floating and that occasionally drift up and and slam into the stationary ice the ice there that's more up against the edge of the land and that there's a there's a word for there's a special word for it even even who knows what happens when one of these floating pieces comes up and slams and to the other ice and that it that it can be like an earthquake if you happen to be standing on the other part of the ice.
Earthquake dialed up to the tenth degree because not only does ICE shake but but when you know you have to think of the momentum of an ice floe that many miles across getting another one it doesn't stop it just breaks the ice and rides up over it and you know it all starts to crumble and fall apart in big huge pieces. I mean these things can can be 50 feet high.
I've seen pictures of it even higher than that when the collision takes place and the ice breaks in all directions so terribly dangerous. Climate change impact there is that formerly there would have been more of what's known as multi-year ice. This is the big iceberg that last all the way through the summer and then they refreeze and they get even bigger so their enormous heavy icebergs and the need for a safe sanctuary for the whalers because they were so large and they tended to get stuck on the bottom. Now there is very much now many of these multi-year ice floes appearing in northern Alaska. And so if there is an evo you don't have that protection and you just have to make a really hasty escape to get away from where that could occur.
It's it's really remarkable and I'm now looking at some of the pictures here on the website particularly this this one photo where you can see kind of a panoramic view of a whale that has been killed and it's now lying on the ice lying on its side. There are some people surrounding it so you can also get a sense of the scale just how big the whale is compared with the people and and against this these vast vistas of snow and ice. It's just it must be it must be just a remarkable kind of experience.
Well it was a very first very disorienting experience and a wonderfully but also kind of weird because there's no rule there's no orienting yourself. And I you know this is sort of who exactly like the ice. Basically it's all white and it's got this strange texture of a pressure ridges and bumps.
Everything is white in there polar bears running around that are very difficult to see. And and then the other aspect is of course it's not sun you know the sun is always up so the sky looks the same it's pretty much all day and then at that time of year around midnight or one or two o'clock the sun would drop low into the northern rise and get these beautiful colors.
But yes a very strange for somebody who's from a place where we have green trees and grass. Unopened it was strange and disorienting but the people were so welcoming and so warm and brought took me into their culture and their family so easily and quickly that I really start to feel like that was where I was at home and that's where I belong. And right after that I had to go to the east coast to do some more reporting on the book and I ended up feeling much more alienated no place among freeways and buildings and all that you know it just started to seem like the sea ice in that beautiful natural area was so much more soothing and homelike despite the polar bears.
Our guest is Charles Wolfe earth. He lives in Anchorage Alaska and has spent most of his life in Alaska began writing for a weekly paper in Alaskan fishing village worked as a freelancer writing travel guides and articles for various publications including The New Republican outside other magazines and he's written a book about climate change in the Arctic It's titled The Whale and the supercomputer on the northern front of climate change and it's published by Northpoint press and questions are certainly welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5. Just one more question that has to do with whaling and also the the relationship sometimes a little bit uneasy between Native people and scientists and it concerns. The the numbers of whales and you tell the story in the book about that.
At what point people thought that the particular these whales the bow heads their right whales were endangered and scientists around the world really wanted the to stop the hunter completely. And they had some idea about how many whales there were. And the native people had some idea about how many whales they where they disagreed. And it turns out that eventually the native people were vindicated.
It turned out that there were indeed more whales and the scientists thought and based on that they have allowed a certain amount of subsistence hunting that is the people are entitled to kill a certain number of whales. They figured out how many is is is OK but that that shit said. Something about maybe how sometimes scientists don't always have the answer and that you know it's important to at least is to read to draw on the experience of people in the place that you're studying.
Right well you know the scientists who are doing their well count in the way that they have done in other places they sit on the shore and watch the wealth go by and then they do a statistical calculation of how many will there were and in their calculations told them that there were so few whales just a few thousand that extinction was already inevitable In other words even if you didn't hunt that whales were going to go extinct and the natives said well wait a minute we know that there are more whales. We just know how many there are and we know that they're swimming under the ice where you can't see them. And we know that they're going on a much wider band and their net migration so that they're out of sight of where you're sitting. And so you're wrong and we have a different number. And of course who did everyone believe that the scientists are these are these you know an educated Eskimo. And after maybe a well that millions of dollars of further research it was found that the Eskimos were completely vindicated. Each thing that they had said was turned out to be true and there been other examples of this in the Arctic. Disagreement between what the scientists said was the fact and what they would need is said with the fact it was proved up for a lot of people is that you can you know if needed people who live on the land in a place and have a tradition of knowing about their place of gathering information as a community really know it a lot better than scientists who come in and do a few measurements and try to answer a hypothesis in there in this style that western science works.
It's simply that the human mind is very much more subtle and complex thing that we give it credit for and if able to see these patterns in when you put many minds together who are very closely linked by a culture and a method of communication they're able to process that process information in a way that's quite extraordinary. One scientist who lives in Barrow and it's been up there in the Arctic for 25 years referred to it as the new Peck supercomputer there is a new pic people had the ability to process that Best enough of environmental information and come up with statements about what was happening in this environment that were true and yet nobody really understood exactly how they did it or where that information came from. And that forms one of the most interesting parts of the whole thing for me is.
Starting to understand what different ways we have of knowing the environment know that there's more than one way that will sort it the bottom line here conclusion is here that the people who were living there knew about the warming before the scientists did or at least the scientists came along applied their methods and said look it's getting warmer and the data people said well we could've told you that.
Right that's one of the things you hear out there all the time is that scientists come up here and spend all this money to prove things that we already know.
I've heard that phrase said more than once that the warming is you know it's a it's a subtle thing in that as we discussed earlier how do we how do you know it's a one way trend or if it's something that the cycle there's of there's been a recognition that there was warming for a long time. But what's hard for people to say is is it a one way or is it a cycle and I think that they've pretty much come to the conclusion that there are among the native people that it is unprecedented in other words there's nothing in their tradition there's nothing their elders can tell about it that looks like this. So that and that suggests that it's a one way thing. But they're very conservative and cautious about making a kind of statement. So from the native point of view there's definitely a drastic warming a change in the environment. And it appears to be unprecedented. There's a. You know at the same time there's a reluctance to accept that because it means such a huge change their way of life.
We have a couple people talk with here who are listening first up caller in Urbana.
Why number one. Well hello. Yes.
Yes go ahead. Line one Urban is interesting.
Could you discuss how technology is changing this. Some new sources say some people will no longer use igloos but they live in wooden houses and so on and so on.
Right where the goods are actually used in Canada Canadian Arctic there never it was really used in the Alaskan Arctic. The people built houses that were dug into the ground and then they would use driftwood or whalebone to put the roof on it then put sod over the top and in that way they made very highly energy efficient homes. And it was with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in the run the turn of the century around the nine thousand nine hundred nine hundred eighty nine thousand nine hundred that the missionaries for whatever reason wanted the people to live in houses that looked more like a normal American house made of wood. And so that side houses were primarily then into that time about 100 years ago.
And people moved into wooden homes which really don't make nearly as much sense.
They're much harder to heat in that arctic environment and there are many other aspects of technology that have changed. Changes been very quick of course in a less hundred years technology changes been very quick in our culture to you know the you can you can fly in it in a 737 to Barrow where the whaling is going on the natives there own a large corporation the largest in Alaska which is in the oil business and various other businesses.
You know they have excellent schools and they have a bus service that drives around the village and picks people up. And some of the technology changes taking place you know wailing. Technology changes been much slower they're still using the skin boat because nobody ever invented anything that works better. It's just the perfect boat for operating on the ice because it's very light very flexible resistant to damage. Quiet in the water and even the Yankee whalers who came from New England to go up there and whale in the 1000 you know 18 to 80 roughly adopted using the skin boats because they were so much better than their wooden boats.
So there's a lot of conservatism in not changing some of that but there's also aspects as the climate changes that folks have been forced to use more motor boats with outboard motors because it's much safer to cruise around in the water looking for a whale than to sit on the ice when it is so dangerous. And they're moving more towards whaling in the fall when the ice is not there using large motor boats because again hazards are not as great with icing so unpredictable. No they've got the hazard of bigger waves because there's less ice there in the fall. So they're going to bigger boats and so technology is allowing them to continue their hunt.
But in sort of a different form in part than traditionally it was hoped to get.
QUESTION The call of the talk with someone else the next person is in Decatur.
Our toll free 1 1 4 0 0 0.
Yes I wanted if you could discuss the studies of a man named George Vokey who has been studying bird problem a black girl in my opinion you're in error. The commandment to point out grammar he wrote about it in the New York Times Magazine back in January of 2002.
Yeah it would evoke a fascinating guy. He was sent up to the Arctic I believe in the late 1970s when there was an oil research project going on to determine the environmental impact of oil development in well he was up there is a young graduate student he found a population of guillemots living on an island northeast of Barrow which is just a small barrier islands only a few inches above the water. Gravel nothing grows there and these Gillet with bird than we normally would be much further south.
And it was a curiosity as to what they were doing there and he made that into his research project and he really made it into his life's work. If he went back there each year and then did the birds and studied them and study how things were changing for them and watch the population grow and grow and grow through the years.
But one of the things that we've learned about climate change is that nature responds to it much more sensitively than you would expect and really turns out to be the best measure of what's happening with climate change because it kind of you know when you take temperature measurements is it the monitor that the temperature pops up and down from day to day and it's really hard to figure out the trends Well Nature doesn't have that difficulty and if you see new species moving farther north you know that the climate is changing and we've seen that worldwide in the range of different species have moved farther north.
But Vokey took on this particular colony of birds as IT project and with their year after year it lost its funding you know institutions had not been very interested in long term study. So he just would take a vacation to the tiny island and sleep in a tent all summer in the frigid conditions counting the birds and what he found with the numbers went up and up and up and then they started to crash.
He thinks because of the changes in the fact that they had to fly much farther to get to the food that they wanted.
Another related thing that happened which has happened subsequent to the article you're talking about is puffins are starting to show up on an island and drive out the guillemots showing how tough an apartment are which is another bird that you would never ever expect to see on the Arctic.
Sam Farmer the there also Alice it's there the birds that live in the water but normally to be most found much farther south. So there's a there's a you appears to be sort of a change where where perhaps that island became habitable for and then for the changes it becomes habitable for puffin. But it's really you know these things are hard to draw a conclusion from because the problem with the Vokey study is the only studying one little island you know and you need to really have a much broader scale view.
There's other people who've been studying the ocean floor and what's been happening there and it sounds really dramatic changes in terms of the organisms that live under the sea and the fact that you know the ocean has been warming and climate trends have been changing that that's affected the productivity of different kinds of animals and species shift until there's a lot of other strands of evidence.
From the natural world of how this is taking place in the oceans I understand a couple of species of IDers that are struck down and our Afghan population has to cry and graphic very last 20 years or so.
Yeah and we are going to go on for quite some time about the species shift. It's been quite something and I spent some time with elders. An article Alaska on the inland areas to talk about the complete changes in the species diversity and the different species of birds arriving and others disappearing so it also in the plant community with big increases in certain kinds of shrubs it's become much a Bush era there has gotten warmer and the ground has gotten warmer.
So a lot of change in the natural world of these off subject that you discussed in your book a lot of it yeah I don't have to get into George of Okies work in any depth because there's somebody else writing a book about it but I got into a lot of it about especially the plant ecology and somewhat about wildlife.
Well thank you thank you. We're down to the point here we have maybe bought five or six minutes. There is one other interesting of the many interesting things in the book that I wanted to ask about and for people here probably in this part of the United States the if they know anything about Alaska and environmental issues there they have followed the long long controversy about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge thing that we would wrestling back and forth on this for probably a couple of decades now and between people on the one hand who say we need to be energy independent at least that is independent of imports of oil from elsewhere so we ought to use whatever resources we have. And they say this is one that should be used and on the other hand we have environmentalist and other people who say that that doesn't make any sense. They question how much oil is there to be had. And they say that they're concerned that there could. See a lot of negative impacts on the environment in that area. What's interesting is that the native people and you would might expect something different. The native people actually support oil production and particularly in the area in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and I would think that it probably would be the other way around.
Yes well you know it's an effort about this and other forums too because it is kind of it seems like a paradox that they're being affected so drastically by climate change and yet they support oil development. First I would say you know if they're not I don't think they're hypocrites. They've strenuously opposed any development offshore because their main their primary way of life is state and marine mammals in the oil industry has shown that it can clean up oil spills off shore.
Therefore they oppose any oil development off shore on shore they support development it's really been the main economic support ever since the Bay oil field was discovered in 19 69. And it's allowed them to have the schools and the helicopter rescue and everything else that they've got up there. Why do they support it when climate change is going on well I think there's a couple of strands to that one is simply the sense that they're not the ones burning the oil.
You know they happen to live on top of it and so that's the way they would like to harvest that resource and they view it as another resource like the resources that they see her and that brings them all the good things that allow them to live. In a sense turning to them and saying hey you shouldn't support oil development is a little bit like turning to some third world farmer and saying don't grow opium poppies when we don't seem to be able to restrain our consumption. So that's one strand of it another is to simply that if people have a hard time connecting. It feels and the way we live with what we're doing to the climate and it's not it's true. All over the world people are only just starting to gather that this is a major problem and it really is going to require some changes in our lifestyle and how we do things and I think that the same thing in the Arctic that people realize even though the problem is so much more severe and pronounced it takes a while before people translate into that into their own actions because you know for each of us as individuals our action seemed so insignificant and yet if we all take action together it will have a significant impact. So I think those are the kind of the strands of it but in a way it goes back to their whole spiritual view of the environment they view the environment as the source of everything. You know all the good things that they give us life and their attitude towards oil are similar. You know when they when they got the ability to heat their houses with fuel that was one of the greatest moment in their history you know that they no longer had to be called.
So oil is something they have a high regard for almost to the point we're out of time I guess is the the way to to and maybe. As we begun we talked a little bit about what's going on in the Arctic that it is seems to be leading a trend that we're seeing elsewhere as as had been predicted by scientists that is they said where there's going to be warming it's going to be more pronounced there. What is for us who live in this part of the United States what do you think that we have to learn by looking at what's happening in the Arctic.
Well you know there's an opportunity that you have that the Mars didn't which is you can you can see it coming from a little bit farther off rather than having these changes thrust upon you. It's going to couple of them are gradually in the temperate regions. It's probably not going to be like that movie that came out in the spring which I saw recently where everything happened overnight. There you know and exactly what the changes are going to be are difficult to predict in some places they will be much drier climate. Their power would be more storms in some places it may be wetter and even colder. If it affects the world circulation patterns. So in terms of the adaptation. The thing that I thought was really interesting was that people are using new technology to adapt in other words deal with the world that the warmer had a different climate. And they're also having to have a little bit of humility that it's a recognition that it's happening. You can't change it. They may have to change your way of life. You may not be able to live right on the shore if you have bigger waves and faster as you may have to move to move your town you know there may be things about our way of life that we can't keep saying. And that level of humility before nature the recognition that nature is in charge and they were along for the ride is something that the in effect have because they've experienced it through the millennia of their life in that very harsh environment.
It's something that we could learn with great benefit I think.
Well there we must stop for people who like to read more and there is certainly much more the book is The Whale and the supercomputer by our guest Charles Wolfe earth is published by Northpoint press we'd like to learn more about him and the book. There's a website which is w w w dot whale and supercomputer dot com. So you do that Whalen supercomputer all as one word no spaces and you'll get there. You can read some articles about him see some pictures and learn more about the book. And Mr. Woolford want to say to you thanks very much for talking with us.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- Producing Organization
- WILL (Radio/television station : Urbana, Ill.)
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- WILL Illinois Public Media (Urbana, Illinois)
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- This Focus episode features an interview with Charles Wohlforth, journalist, who wrote a book titled "The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change," about climate change and its impacts in Alaska and the Arctic. The book looks at the perspectives of Alaska and Arctic native communities, as well as the scientists who are studying climate change in the region.
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Guest: Wohlforth, Charles
Producer: Brighton, Jack
Producing Organization: WILL (Radio/television station : Urbana, Ill.)
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Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: focus040816b.mp3 (Illinois Public Media)
Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: focus040816b.wav (Illinois Public Media)
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- Chicago: “Focus; The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change,” 2004-08-16, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 18, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-bv79s1kz48.
- MLA: “Focus; The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change.” 2004-08-16. WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 18, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-bv79s1kz48>.
- APA: Focus; The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change. Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-bv79s1kz48