Welcome to the Jungle: America After Vietnam
                                       AP US History 2007

Sam Choe

Author's Bio

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The Dangers of Global Warming

      The author of the Field Notes from a Catastrophe Man, Nature, and Climate Change is Elizabeth Kolbert, who was born in 1961 and spent her early childhood in the Bronx. When she was in kindergarten, her family relocated to Larchmont, New York, where she remained until 1979. After graduating high school, Kolbert spent four years studying literature at Yale University. In 1983, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Universitat-Hamburg, in Germany. When Kolbert returned to New York at the end of 1984, she joined the Times. In 1999, she left the Times to join the staff of The New Yorker. Joining The New Yorker forced her to learn to write all over again. At The New Yorker, Kolbert has written articles about high-profile politicians. In 2001, Kolbert spent a year on assignment in Greenland, researching ice coring. The experience presented the perfect opportunity for her to tackle global warming, a topic that had interested her since 1989. Her research resulted in The Climate of Man a three-part series which was published in The New Yorker in April 2005 and won the      American Association's Award for the Advancement of Science.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe Man, Nature, And Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert, deals with the global warming that has been endangering our world for several decades. The book tells the reader to how she was concerned about the dramatic change of the world's temperature, the dangers posed by the Earth's increasing temperature and the difficulty of communicating the urgency of the problem to the public. "My hope is that this book will be read by everyone, by which I mean not only those who follow the latest news about the climate but also those who prefer to skip over it."1 While most writing on climate change has relied on dry data and statistics, Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe is a vivid, technicolor reportage. In the book, she presents several reports in first person and describes the situations in detailed expeditions with some of the world's top climate scientists to Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska. She explains the science behind the issue, draws frightening parallels to lost ancient civilizations, unpacks the politics, and presents the personal stories of those who are being affected the most.
     The people who make their homes near the poles are in an eerie foreshadowing, watching their worlds disappear. The Alaskan Village of Shishmaref sits on an island known as Sarichef, five miles off the coast of the Seward Peninsula. Sarichef is a small island and Shishmaref is basically the only thing on it. Traditionally, the men in Shishmaref hunted for seals by driving out over the sea ice with dogsleds or more recently, on snowmobiles. However, in the early 1990s, the hunters began to notice that the sea ice was changing. The ice was starting to form later in the fall and breaking up earlier in the spring, making it too dangerous to hunt using snowmobiles. Soon, the changes in the sea ice brought other problems. At its highest point, Shishmaref is only 22 feet above sea levels, and the houses, most of which were built by the U.S. government, are small, boxy, and not particularly sturdy. A storm in October 1997 scoured away a 125 foot wide strip from the town's northern edge- several houses were destroyed and more than a dozen had to be relocated. During another storm, in October 2001, the village was threatened by twelve-foot waves. Taking action, residents of Shishmaref voted in the summer of 2002 to move the entire village to the mainland - a relocation that cost the U.S. government $180 million. Soon another island called Romanovsky disappeared down the sea and when Romanovsky emerged from the ocean, Kolbert took a walk around the island. Apparently, it had been a nesting site for birds in the spring, because everywhere she went there were bits of eggshell and piles of droppings. The island was only about 10 feet above sea level, and at the edges it dropped off sharply into the water. Romanovsky pointed out a spot along the shore where the previous summer a series of ice wedges had been exposed. They have since melted, and the ground behind them has given way in a cascade of black mud. In a few years, he said, he expected more ice wedges would be exposed, and then these would melt, causing further erosion. Although the process was different in its mechanics from what was going on in Shishmaref, it had much the same cause and, according to Romanovsky, was likely to have the same result. "Another disappearing island, it's moving very, very fast." 2 And not only are Shishmaref and Romanovsky disappearing, but many islands and countries are feeling the threats and dangers of global warming.
     Kolbert mentions one of the major effects of the global warming Kolbert mentions is the melting of ice. On September 18, 1997, Des Groseilliers, a 318-foot-long icebreaker with a bright red hull, set out from the town of Tuktoyakruk on the Beaufort Sea, and headed north under overcast skies. Crew members were stunned at how much smaller the ice had become. NASA, using satellites equipped with microwave sensors, has made the most precise measurements of Arctic sea ice. In 1979, the satellite data showed perennial sea ice covering 1.7 billion acres, or an area the size of the continental United States. The ice's extent varies from year to year, but since then the overall trend has been strongly going downward. The losses have been particularly great in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. By now, the perennial sea ice has shrunk by roughly 250 million acres, an area the size of New York, Georgia, and Texas combined. The people from Des Groseilliers noticed that the ice, which was about nine feet in 1979, was just six feet thick, and in some spots just three. By August 1998, so many of the scientists had fallen through that a new requirement was added to the protocol: anyone who set foot off the ship had to wear a life jacket. The melting of the ice is dangerous to the earth's atmosphere since greenhouse gases come from it, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Also, Kolbert says that the active layer, which can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet deep, freezes in the winter but thaws over the summer. Life in the active layer proceeds much as it does in more temperate regions, with one critical difference: temperatures are so low that when trees and grasses die they do not fully decompose. New plants grow on top of the half-rotted old ones, and when these plants die the same thing happens all over again. This process is known as cryoturbation. Because of the low temperatures, the plants are frozen before they're rotted, being saved under the ice. However, it can run in reverse if the temperature starts to change because thawing permafrost could make the active layer more hospitable to plants, which are a sink for carbon. No one knows exactly how much carbon is stored in the world's permafrost, but estimates run as high as 450 billion metric tons. So Kolbert describes global warming as "riding my bike around here, You ride by all these pastures and they've got a big boulder sitting there on this rolling hill. You can't just go by this boulder. You've got to try to push. So you start rocking it, and you get a bunch of friends, and they start rocking it, and finally it starts moving. And then you realize, Maybe this wasn't the best idea. That's what we're doing as a society. This climate, if it starts rolling, we don't really know where it will stop." 3 Like the boulder rolling down the hill, she believes that global warming will continue to hurt the earth.
     The exposure of carbon can cause some changes to earth's temperature. One Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, who is regarded as one of the giants of nineteenth-century science, decided to actually calculate how the earth's temperature would be affected by changing carbon levels. He would later describe this task as one of the most tedious of his life. "I have not worked this hard since I was cramming for my B.A."4 Finally, in December 1895, he was ready to present his conclusions to the Swedish Academy. By today's standards, Arrhenius's work seems primitive. All of his calculations were performed using pen and paper. Arrhenius asked what would happen to the earth's climate if carbon levels were halved and also if they were doubled. In the case of doubling, he determined that average global temperatures would rise between nine and eleven degrees, a result that approximates the estimates of the most sophisticated climate models in operation today. Arrhenius was also responsible for a key conceptual breakthrough. All over Europe, factories and railroads and power stations were burning coal and belching out smoke. Arrhenius recognized that industrialization and climate change were intimately related, and that the consumption of fossil fuels must, over time, lead to warming. He was not, however, terribly concerned about this, believing that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the air would be extremely slow. Most chemists and scientists until the 1970s shared his optimistic views. Although an Irish physicist named John Tyndall found the global warming in the late 1850, it was not until 1970s that its effects were recognized.
     Swiss Camp is a research station that was set up in 1990 on a platform drilled into the Greenland ice sheet and Kolbert arrived at the camp in late May 2004. Konrad Steffen, a professor of geography at University of Colorado, is the director of Swiss Camp. He had spent the last fourteen summers at Swiss Camp, and when Kolbert asked him what he had learned during that time, he said, "What the regional models tell us is that we will get more melt at the coast. It will continue to melt. But warmer air can hold most water vapor, and at the top of the ice sheet you'll get more precipitation... We'll get an imbalance of having more accumulation at the top, and more melt at the bottom. The key question now is: What is the dominant one, the more melt of the increase?" 5 More than 80 percent of Greenland is covered by ice. Locked into this enormous glacier is eight percent of the world's fresh water supply. The record of the Greenland ice cores have been collected continuously. However the Greenland ice cores stop providing reliable information right around the start of the last glaciations. It was thus found that the temperatures often swung wildly. Through this kind of experiments and reports around the world, Kolbert explains the dangers of the global warming throughout the book. Kolbert's thesis is solid, built on dozens of similar stories about a global climatic catastrophe. By using firsthand information, historical facts, and other scientists and chemists' opinions, she establishes her goal in letting know others of the threats that have been occurring because of us and the global warming that has been warming the earth for numerous years. She mentions directly and indirectly of the dangers that are coming rapidly onto us. "You can tip and then you'll just go back. You can tip it and just go back. And then you tip it and you get to the other stable state, which is upside down." 6 She says that if we don't start to prepare and try to stop the global warming, all the arctic will melt during our generation.
     Since Kolbert is a journalist, she may be biased. She may be exaggerating the state of global warming. Numerous scientists are unaware about global warming and believe that it's occurring very slowly. However, according to Kolbert, it's happening very rapidly and says that it will be very destructive to us in a very short of time. Her book is also based on other scientists' observations and knowledge and the previous scientists who influenced this field of science, not her own. Therefore, she may be influenced by those peoples' point of view and may have obtained some biased point of views toward global warming from them. "On the basis of Zwally's findings, I argued that if greenhouse gas emissions are not controlled, the total disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet should be set in motion in a matter of decades." 7 The two reviews on this book by Denis Hayes and Mariana Gosnel commented on the book's clarity and quality of information that has been obtained in first person. The reviews also described how well Kolbert organized the book and how well she presented the facts persuading.
     The book has numerous strengths and weaknesses. First, the strengths of the book are that it had countless first-hand observations, facts and information. It contained specific information of several historical giant scientists, such as John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, and Charles David Keeling, and how they influenced the field of global warming. "John Tyndall set out to study the absorptive properties of various gases. What he discovered let him to propose the first accurate account of how the atmosphere functions."8 Therefore, the book made the readers able to understand easily and realize how dangerous and threatening global warming is becoming. However, the book also had some weaknesses in that its information was not focused on one fact, but on many, making the reader confused. Therefore, it did not connect the chapters to chapters very well. Also it included several of other scientists' perspectives while almost none of hers. The book describes how global warming was perceived back in the 1800s and how it's changed since then. The book changed previously held values, practices, and ideas by providing important facts and information that made the book inevitable to ignore. It'll probably have a great impact on society today because the book brought up some facts that we have been ignoring for a long time and the causes and effects of global warming are impacting and spreading very rapidly around the world. Overall, Kolbert uses Field Notes from a Catastrophe Man, Nature, And Climate Change to emphasize how global warming may affect our generation any time. She wants the readers to recognize the truth and the facts about the dangers of global warming. "It's important to acknowledge the many uncertainties that exist."9 It has been affecting the world and has been destroying several small islands that have been depending on the ice. Global Warming is manifesting through out the world and it's setting the earth's a temperature to higher and higher degree each day and all should realize how important it is.


1. Kolbert, Elizabeth 3 2. Kolbert, Elizabeth 24 3. Kolbert, Elizabeth 34 4. Kolbert, Elizabeth 40 5. Kolbert, Elizabeth 48 6. Kolbert, Elizabeth 34 7. Kolbert, Elizabeth 55 8. Kolbert, Elizabeth 35 9. Kolbert, Elizabeth 193

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