Charles Wohlforth
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The Whale and the Supercomputer
On the Northern Front of Climate Change

By Charles Wohlforth



            I love winter. It’s when I fly through the birch forest like a hawk. If the snow is good at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park, the cross-country ski trails swoop among old trees and over steep, round hills, unwrapping silent white glades and black thickets etched with hoarfrost in quick, smoothly evolving succession. The air feels cool on my perspiring face and steam rises from my chest. Topping a tall hill, I can see gray-blue ice gliding swiftly to sea in the currents of Cook Inlet, the bluffs and low forest beyond, and, on the horizon, sharp-carved mountains, glowing yellow in the low-angle sunshine. Then I push off and hear the wind rushing past my ears as I crouch on the fast downhill. This is what I think of when I’m trapped in muddy traffic in April or when I’m stuck at my computer watching the rain pour down in September. Winter--freedom, purity, grace--the season when the world turns solid, clean and sharp.

But, some recent winters were stillborn in this part of Alaska. Fall came late. At Halloween, when it should be deep snow, we took the children trick-or-treating without coats. The winter’s first snowfall was later than ever before, then we had rain and thaw. The ski trails were ruined; running instead, plodding and earthbound, was no substitute. In late winter, normally the best season, the sled dog races were canceled for lack of snow. That almost never happened when I was a child, but now it was happening every couple of years. Some rivers never froze over the winter. Native elders said they had never seen such warm conditions. Everyone talked about it every day, and then everyone stopped. After a while, you couldn’t talk about it anymore. Lovers of winter--skiing friends, and skaters, snowmachiners, hunters and dog mushers--all looked stricken and heartsick, and there was nothing left to say.

Science tells us no single winter can be blamed on global climate change. Weather naturally varies from year to year, while climate represents a broad span of time and space beyond our immediate perception. But now science, too, took notice. Average winter temperatures in Interior Alaska had risen 7 degrees F since the 1950s. Annual precipitation increased by 30 percent from 1968 to 1990. Alaska glaciers were shrinking, permanently frozen ground was melting, spring was earlier, and Arctic sea ice was thinner and less extensive than ever before measured. Winter was going to hell.

            The Iñupiaq elders of the Arctic noticed first. Sustained for a thousand years by hunting whales from the floating ice, they had developed fine perception of the natural systems around them. Scientists predicted that global climate change would come first and strongest in the Arctic and went there to learn how the sky, ice, snow, water and tundra interacted to drive changes in the world’s environment. Fascinating discoveries accumulated along that path. But the Iñupiat already knew the patterns in the system and how they changed through time, a sense of the whole the wisest researchers recognized and envied. Some sought access to that culture and way of seeing. Others studied how the Iñupiat were adapting to the new world, knowing that the rest of the mankind would eventually follow.

            The climate here was changing; that was beyond debate. Burning fossil fuels had greatly elevated the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere. The physics of carbon dioxide trapping the sun’s heat on earth, and the rough magnitude of that effect on the planet’s heat balance, had been firmly established more than thirty years earlier. We had crime scene, victim, suspect, motive, opportunity, and smoking gun. There was plenty of evidence to convict. We lacked scientific proof to say how much climate change was manmade and how much was natural, or to predict exactly what would happen next. The earth is complex; perhaps predicting the future isn’t possible. Still, argument raged on over these marginal uncertainties in the face of this enormous, palpable reality.

Let others parry and thrust with the skeptics’ abstractions. Here, instead, is climate change in the flesh, the story of individual people at their particular time and place, and what they saw with their eyes and felt in their bones. Here is climate change being lived, the adventure of surviving and thriving as human organisms who must adapt to a new natural world. The Iñupiat have a creation myth about when the earth was upside down; they’ve been through this before. Christians have their own creation myth; all people have spiritual ideas about land and wilderness. As the world turns upside down again, our species is embarking on an epic physical, moral and cultural journey. If we’re honest, we’ll be forced to readjust our fundamental beliefs about how we relate to nature as a species in an ecological niche. The Iñupiat are at the lead, and they seem to be excellent guides.

            Over the span of a warm and dreary winter in Anchorage, I learned to enjoy running. When buds formed on the birch trees in time for my father’s birthday in April--they used to come nearer my birthday in May--I could only greet them with joy. Day by day, one season at a time, I began to adjust. I was not ready to accept in my heart that the world would always be different, but I was learning to live in the conditions that nature brought to me.