April 27, 2006

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Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, 2006, 210 pages)

This is a depressing yet informative story about a whole bunch of people sitting around doing nothing while Earth burns.

Iceland is melting. Alaska is melting. The ice sheets are the permafrost are headed for tipping points where melting begets more melting.

We need some greenhouse gases to keep the planet warm enough for us. Too much, however, is too much.

As the bookís title implies, Elizabeth Kolbert followed scientists around, watched them, asked lots of questions and took notes, which became this book.

And you canít ask for a better explanation of global warming. Although the information isnít happy, the book is an absorbing, enlightening, painlessly informative read. Kolbert makes the science simple.

For instance: at the ice sheets, the vicious cycle of melting happens because whereas ice reflects lots of the sunís light/heat back into space (itís the most reflective planetary surface we have), water reflects much less, and instead absorbs much more, of the solar energy that shines on it. So once a little ice has been replaced by water, the area now is even better at warming up than it used to be.

As Kolbert points out, any one of the pieces of evidence here would not close the case by itself, but there are so many converging facts from such diverse sources that when you put them together itís very clear. Kolbert, like the scientists she talked to (and there are many), concludes that if we donít change a lot we are going to be up a big environmental creek without a paddle. A polluted, overflowing creek in the middle of whatís supposed to be a desert plain. Wyoming, she reminds us, was entirely underwater once and based on recent evidence it could happen again a lot sooner than you thought. Global warming is not merely about losing some island outposts; itís about worldwide ripple effects from messing up temperatures and habitats and links in the food chain.

Sadly, a lot of this book is about the ways in which we are not changing, although we talk a lot about changing.

Field Notes is not about what to do next. (It does, however, include a chapter on effective actions the city of Burlington, Vt., and its citizens have taken.) Field Notes is about making clear that we should act now.

Youíll want to chase this book with something more hopeful about positive, practical solutions. But still, this is excellent science writing. A

ó Lisa Parsons


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