Charles Wohlforth
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The Whale and the Supercomputer: Reviews

Inside this awkward title is a heck of a book. Charles Wohlforth … establishes a riveting sense of place. … He serves up an insider's view of two subcultures, Eskimo whalers and Arctic research scientists, and makes us face the force they are both reckoning with: climate change. … Some of Wohlforth's strongest writing is pure description; his images of polar bears charging storm waves and picking at piles of whalebones in a deserted village are unforgettable. He also takes the reader along as a walrus, with its baby on its back, attempts to climb into the whaler's boat, thinking the boat's white sides are an iceberg. And he gives the reader much to think about. When a native elder, a former whaler and polar-bear hunter, heads out with scientists to remote survey sites, it is the elder who finds the way when blowing snow obscures landmarks and the GPS coordinates are off. … It's one of many times in the book when Wohlforth leaves the reader with the uneasy sense that scientists are infinitely parsing what is hardly news to Eskimos coping with rotten ice and warm weather. Wohlforth quotes the elder's view of it: "They use science to prove things we already know."

--Lynda Mapes, Seattle Times, June 20, 2004

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… 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. . . Wohlforth's depiction of the research scientists -- both in Barrow and elsewhere -- is equally realistic…  "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.

--Ian Garrick Mason, San Francisco Chronicle, April 18, 2004

In this truly extraordinary book, journalist Wohlforth, an Alaskan resident, tackles the central question of our age: how do we know about our environment?
In talking with the scientists who make models and create predictions of the future based on scientific data, Wohlforth allows us to observe their passion and their way of seeing the world through the lens of science. He also introduces us to native hunters and whalers, revealing how they know their world, i.e., how they gather their personal information, pass it on, and integrate it into an understanding of the environment and how it is changing. ... This engrossing book is an important addition for public and academic libraries that collect books on global warming, the Arctic and Alaska, and the scientific process.

        --Betty Galbraith, Library Journal, April 2004

"The Whale and the Supercomputer" skillfully melds two very different worlds: the whaling culture of northern Alaska's Inupiaq, and the at-times equally mysterious culture and methods of the scientific community. Along the way, he delivers many salient points about real-world impacts of global warming, which is clobbering northern latitudes first and hardest..

--Robert Krier, San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 2004

* “I love the winter. It’s when I fly through the birch forest like a hawk.” So begins Alaska-based journalist Wohlforth’s beautifully written study of global warming’s impact on Arctic weather patterns. He does a magnificent job of writing about two disparate cultures—the Inupiaq Eskimos who live and hunt on the coast of the Arctic Ocean and Western scientists attempting to comprehend climate change—and demonstrating just how much they have in common. …  Moving with ease from whaling boats to seminar rooms, Wohlforth brings excitement to the quest for information about global warming. Part adventure story, part science writing accessible to the general reader, this thoroughly engaging volume provides rich insight into ways of dealing with climate change.

--Publisher's Weekly, starred review 2/16/04

Wohlforth, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who followed climatologists across Alaska, doesn’t dismiss the scientific data they have meticulously collected. But he does suggest that the scientists’ ability to understand climate change—whose impact is far more pronounced in the Arctic—is hampered by their tendency to sneer at  anecdotal evidence. Huddled close to their $40 million supercomputers, climatologists can’t even correctly model Arctic snow cover, despite the critical importance of understanding the stuff.

--Joseph D’Agnese, Discover, June 2004

Wohlforth’s character portraits are wonderfully detailed, and never simplistic … his unpredictable structure is engaging, and his stories reflect off one another in satisfying ways.

-- Michelle Nijhuis, High Country News, June 21, 2004

The Whale and the Supercomputer
is a thoughtful book. It uses the Iñupiaq experience to highlight some basic flaws in our consumption-crazy, technology-loving industrialized world. ... Elegantly put and true ...

--Elizabeth Grossman, Grist, June 2, 2004

The Whale and the Supercomputer leads the reader on a fascinating tour of the latest research and real-life observations from people on the front lines of climate change. … The Inupiat and scientists cross paths frequently … The book is at its best when describing how the cultures respond to each other. Wohlforth does everyone a favor by neither glorifying nor denigrating the respective cultures. He typically avoids the easy stereotypes, giving his depictions of personalities and beliefs a ring of truth. Equally commendable is the fact that most Alaskans will recognize Wohlforth's Alaska. This isn’t a glossy tour brochure or awestruck travelogue. Wohlforth knows the territory.

--Scott Bowlen, Ketchikan Daily News, April 24-25

... an unusual, nuanced and highly readable account of people's interactions with a changing natural world. … Wohlforth casts a wide net. He introduces dozens of people and travels around the nation. … In the hands of a lesser writer, so much material could spin out of control. But Wohlforth writes with clarity, flow and an eye for personable detail. His prose includes adventure, flashes of wit and lyrical descriptions of the arctic's blue and white realm. … He notes that while figuring out causes is a job for science, figuring out what to do about climate change is very much a cultural issue. Wohlforth has gone out on thin ice himself by tackling a difficult topic. He brings to the challenge caution, insight and communication skills scientists too often lack. The result is a fine book both enjoyable and important.

-- Shana Loshbaugh, Peninsula Clarion,  April 22, 2004

The “Enormous, palpable reality,” writes Alaskan journalist Charles Wohlforth in The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change, is that the planet’s climate is changing, and changing first, fastest and strongest in the
Arctic. Wohlforth leaves it to others to “parry and thrust” with opposing theories about causes; in brawny profiles of far-flung researchers, native whalers, and other way-up-northerners he details the way humans are themselves changing in the face of a mutating planet, “the adventure of surviving and thriving as human organisms in a new natural world.” … [review of the another book] … Taken together, these fascinating narratives point a wide-angle lens at the ways we’re changing the planet, and the ways it’s changing us.

--Men's Journal, April 2004

In this suprisingly intimate presentation, in which he gives life stories to most of the people he interviews, [Wohlforth] accompanies one group of scientists on a Nome-to-Barrow transect to measure winter snowpack, and he talks to climate modelers, glaciologists, entomologists, and biologists at their various research stations on the Arctic coast or in the interior. Often itinerants from the lower 48, the scientists have a data-oriented outlook that contrasts with the Inupiat, the indigenous people of Alaska's North Slope. ... [He] transmits their experiences of climate warming either through observation of seascape or ancestral memory, which effectively convey the Inupiat's impression of the changes around them. Wohlforth's detailed, perceptive work will immediately engage readers interested in environmentalism.

--Gilbert Taylor, Booklist, 3/15/04

Wohlforth offers a revealing look at climatic change where it counts.

--Kirkus Reviews, 2/1/04

The ancient heart of arctic Alaska beats loudly in The Whale and the Supercomputer. Charles Wohlforth writes passionate advocacy in brilliant prose, very much in the tradition of Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez, that is, inimitably. The Iñupiaq Eskimo's vigilant concerns, ideas, know-how -- side by side with modern science's approach to the profound effects of climate change -- are brought to readers with unalloyed power to disturb and enchant in equal measure. Mr. Wohlforth is an indispensable environmental journalist.

--Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and My Famous Evening

Charles Wohlforth has sent us a fascinating dispatch from the front lines of global warming. With this satisfying blend of adventure and philosophy, he paints a rich and often surprising picture of life at the edge of the world. And, by showing us two cultures struggling to grasp the epic changes upon them, he tackles fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge itself, and the purpose of seeking it.

--Barbara Freese, author of Coal: A Human History