Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert

18 May 2014 Written by 
Published in Book Reviews

Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.  Elizabeth Kolbert. Bloomsbury, New York, 2006.

This book evolved out of a three part series of articles originally published in the New Yorker.  Each chapter stands alone as a brief essay.  Some chapters explore how global warming is affecting certain areas, most notably in the Arctic, but also Costa Rica and Holland. 

In Greenland, glaciers are melting at record rates.  In parts of Alaska and Arctic regions of Russia and Canada, the permafrost is melting.  Many of the areas that have had the strongest indications of global climate change due to warming of the earth are in the Arctic. But the effects are not felt just there.

Holland has had a centuries’ long battle with the sea, and much of the country actually lies below sea level, protected by a vast network of levees and dikes, dunes, pumps, windmills and holding ponds.  Scientists expect a rise in sea level of 60 cm (about 2 feet) by the end of the century.  In parts of Holland, certain rural areas are being set up as areas that will be flooded.   It is hoped that by abandoning some of these areas, more developed urban areas might be spared.

In the British Isles, records of butterflies going back well over 100 years indicate that many species are migrating north as temperatures rise, or climbing to higher altitudes in the Scottish Highlands.  In Costa Rica, certain amphibians and birds are climbing to habitats at higher elevations due to changing rainfall patterns.

Kolbert’s anecdotal descriptions of specific locations or animal species being affected by climate change are interspersed with a wealth of information on the history of the evolving theories on global warming.  In the 1850s, the Irish physicist John Tyndall presented the first modern and fairly accurate account of just how the atmosphere works.

Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, built upon Tyndall’s work. A Nobel Laureate in 1903 for his work on electrolytic dissociation, he pursued just how the atmosphere would change and warm with increases of CO2 from industrialization.  This work done in the 1890s required about a year of long hours of long hand calculation.  While primitive by today’s standards, this was very important work.  However, after he died in 1927, these studies were largely neglected for several decades.

In the 1950s, Charles David Keeling developed the “Keeling Curve” based on increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, measured as parts per million.  There have been nearly continual observations of CO2 levels from Mauna Loa, which have risen from 316 ppm in 1959 to about 378 ppm by 2005, with every indication that it continues to increase.   As this number continues to rise, increasing temperatures and rising seas appear a near certainty, with the severity of temperature rise and sea level rise proportional to the increasing CO2 levels.  Many feel that passing the threshold of 350 parts per million, we have reached a tipping point where at least some significant effects will have a strong impact in coming decades:  warmer average global temperatures, melting of glaciers and permafrost, an increasingly frequent severe weather events, much greater precipitation and flooding in some areas, and greater drought in other areas.

There is a chapter on the Kyoto Protocol and the reluctance of the United States (and Australia) making any international treaty working towards real reductions of CO2 levels much less likely to happen.  Indeed, by approximately 2005, CO2 emissions in the U.S. were an estimated 20% higher than they were in 1990. 

One hopeful sign is how the city of Burlington, Vermont has reacted to this issue.  Largely disgusted with the United States refusing to act on any serious level towards reducing CO2 emissions, several local actions were strongly supported at the local level.  This has included supporting “deconstruction.”  When buildings are torn down or remodeled, various fixtures, instead of being trashed, are sold to others for home improvement projects.  Burlington supplies about 50% of its energy needs using renewable energy sources, such as a wood chip power plant, and windmills.  Other strategies include a publicly supported grocery market in the inner city which specializes in locally grown produce, and bicycle racks on city buses, encouraging transit use combined with bicycling.

With a similar climate and population, it is likely that current Rust 2 Green initiative being promoted in Utica and other Central New York cities by various study groups and city governments could learn a few things from the city of Burlington.  This chapter alone makes the book worth reading for a reader in the Utica area of central New York. But for these academic ideas to work will require the hard work of many, both inside and outside of government.

With her anecdotal observations of diverse communities around the world already affected by global warming, combined with historical background of the problem, including the political / scientific debate of the Bush II era leading to years of American inaction on this vital issue, Elizabeth Kolbert has written a very accessible account of the problem.  Complex scientific ideas are presented in an historical context that is easily understood by the general reader.   This forthright and non-strident book does, however, reveal examples of what we might expect by continuing on our current path of inaction, and in its low-key way is a call for action on this important issue. 

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Roger Chambers

Roger Chambers is a regsitered nurse, working in geriatric nursing for over 30 years. Since 1997 he has tended a large organic garden at his urban home. He has traveled widely in the US and Canada, Europe and Latin America.

He has had several articles in hobby publications on shortwave radio, and several poems in local arts journals and newspapers. An avid fan of birds and the Adirondack Mountains, at present he is largely focused on natural seasonal changes, holidays, and associated local fairs and festivals.

Roger resides in the beautiful Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York.

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