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Book review

A changing world



Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert


$17.95, 225 pgs.

By Holly Fraughton

As someone who is somewhat perplexed by science, but very interested in environmental issues, I reach a bit of an impasse when it comes to the topic of global warming.

While I’d love to learn more, I’m usually deterred by confusing and convoluted information, laden with complicated scientific terms, but am constantly on the lookout for interesting, but simple, explanations of environmental phenomena.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe is a frank, refreshing examination of global warming, complete with diagrams for the scientifically challenged (read: me).

Kolbert’s background in journalism is an incredible asset to a book of this nature, as she has a natural knack for explaining scientific terms and processes in an easy to understand, interesting manner. She’s even thrown a few illustrations and graphs in for good measure.

The book, in Kolbert’s words, is “about watching the world change.” It actually started out as a three-part series for the New Yorker, which won Kolbert a National Magazine Award in 2006.

She traveled all over the world – to places like the Arctic circle, northern England, and the Netherlands – doing research, talking to scientists, and learning about our rapidly changing climate, and she includes vivid descriptions of the people, places and things she encounters in her book. These descriptions help Kolbert engage readers in the subject matter, almost making them feel like they’re on the road with her.

On her first stop in Shishmaref, Alaska, Kolbert meets with local residents to talk about the dramatic changes they’ve noticed in their own backyards.

“Morris Kiyutelluk, who is sixty-five, has lived in Shishmaref almost all his life. (His last name, he told me, means ‘without a wooden spoon.’) I spoke to him while I was hanging around the basement of the village church, which also serves as the unofficial headquarters for a group called the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition. ‘The first time I heard about global warming, I thought, I don’t believe those Japanese,’ Kiyutelluk told me. ‘Well, they had some good scientists, and it’s become true.’”

Kolbert doesn’t forget to back up her observations with fact, either.

At some points, she includes a little too much scientific “fact” for my taste. While she explains things like the difference between perennial and seasonal ice, and makes references to the “terminal moraine” and Holocene interglacial, there were a few moments when I struggled to keep my eyes from drifting to the next page in search of an interesting character, interview or story.

She helps to balance this overload of technical information with colourful historical references, like the Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius’s, predictions about carbon dioxide levels rising in the early 1900’s, and information about the first official study of global warming, sanctioned by American president Jimmy Carter in 1979.

While Field Notes from a Catastrophe certainly illustrates the magnitude of global warming, and clearly asserts that it is, in fact, a problem of epic proportions, Kolbert doesn’t go over the top with fear-mongering – rather, she lets the information stand for itself, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions from the information.

But there are moments throughout the book where Kolbert’s sadness and passion for the issue of climate change can’t help but shine through.

In one such scene, Kolbert describes driving with a scientist to Deadhorse, Alaska, along the Dalton Highway, which is edged by an aboveground oil pipeline and with forest fires burning in the background.

“Just beyond Coldfoot, we passed the tree line. An evergreen was marked with a plaque that read ‘Farthest North Spruce Tree on the Alaska Pipeline: Do Not Cut.’ Predictably, someone had taken a knife to it. A deep gouge around the trunk was bound with duct tape. ‘I think it will die,’ Romanovsky told me.”