The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change

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9780865477148: The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change

In The Whale and the Supercomputer, scientists and natives wrestle with our changing climate in the land where it has hit first
--and hardest

A traditional Eskimo whale-hunting party races to shore near Barrow, Alaska-their comrades trapped on a floe drifting out to sea-as ice that should be solid this time of year gives way. Elsewhere, a team of scientists transverses the tundra, sleeping in tents, surviving on frozen chocolate, and measuring the snow every ten kilometers in a quest to understand the effects of albedo, the snow's reflective ability to cool the earth beneath it.

Climate change isn't an abstraction in the far North. It is a reality that has already dramatically altered daily life, especially that of the native peoples who still live largely off the land and sea. Because nature shows her footprints so plainly here, the region is also a lure for scientists intent on comprehending the complexities of climate change. In this gripping account, Charles Wohlforth follows the two groups as they navigate a radically shifting landscape. The scientists attempt to decipher its smallest elements and to derive from them a set of abstract laws and models. The natives draw on uncannily accurate traditional knowledge, borne of long experience living close to the land. Even as they see the same things-a Native elder watches weather coming through too fast to predict; a climatologist notes an increased frequency of cyclonic systems-the two cultures struggle to reconcile their vastly different ways of comprehending the environment.

With grace, clarity, and a sense of adventure, Wohlforth--a lifelong Alaskan--illuminates both ways of seeing a world in flux, and in the process, helps us to navigate a way forward as climate change reaches us all.

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About the Author:

Charles Wohlforth, formerly a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Outside and The New Republic. He is a life-long Alaskan.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Whale and the Supercomputer
CHAPTER ONE The Whale THE BRINK OF THE SHOREFAST SEA ICE cut the water like the edge of a swimming pool. A white canvas tent, several snow-machines and big wooden sleds, and a sealskin umiaq whale boat waited like poolside furniture on the blue-white surface of the ice. Gentle puffs rippled the open water a foot or two below, except near the edge, where a fragile skin of new ice stilled the surface. Sun in the north reached from the far side of the lead, backlighting the water and picking out the imperfections in this clear, newborn ice with a contrast of yellow-orange and royal blue. This was after midnight on May 6, 2002, three miles offshore from the NAPA auto parts store in Barrow, Alaska. A hushed voice urged me on toward the edge. "Come on, there's a fox. They follow the polar bears." The fox ran past the camp, beyond the ice edge, danced as it ran, upon that new skin of ice floating on the indigo water. An hour or two earlier there had been no ice there at all and now it looked no thicker than a crust of bread. The fox used tiny, rapid steps. Its feet disappeared in motion. Its back arched high and its tail pulled up tall, as if strings were helping suspend it on that insubstantial film of hardened water. Somehow it knew how much weight a brand-new sheen of ice could hold, and knew how to calibrate each step within that limit. The Iñupiaq whalers of Oliver Leavitt Crew watched and muttered with admiration as the fox pranced out ofsight. All were experienced hunters, even the young ones, but they were impressed by this skill. This animal knew something valuable, something they would like to know, something that could help them survive. The five younger members of the crew had been building an ice trail back from the edge. Swinging ice axes and a pick ax, they pounded through ridges as high as a garden shed, pitching broken ice boulders to fill in the dips. The road would be an alternate escape route for the snow-machines and sleds should ice conditions deteriorate, and also a secondary access route to send a young guy back to town for pop and doughnuts if life in camp continued as normal. The young men had been working for twelve hours. Billy Jens Leavitt, the captain's son, was the boss of this job. He was gigantic, tall with huge limbs and feet, swinging a heavy pick ax like a nightstick. His father bragged, by complaining, that Billy Jens tended to throw the harpoon too hard, embedding not only its head but also the shaft in the whale. Ambrose Leavitt and Gilford Mongoyak were Billy Jens's juniors on the crew, but both adults. Ambrose missed his baby; Oliver wouldn't send him home on errands for fear he wouldn't come back. Gilford talked a lot of his one- and two-year-olds. Polite Jens Hopson was a high school kid and Brian Ahkiviana a seventh grader, shy but cheerful, and big for his age. Both had soft young faces but worked like men. I was older than any of them and they treated me with noticeable respect, and that was a little awkward, since I knew a small fraction of what the youngest of them knew about what we were doing. When I arrived I had to take an ice ax from someone. There were only five axes and six of us. Billy Jens wouldn't tell me whose ice ax to take; he wouldn't tell an older man what to do. They stood around me in a circle as I tried quickly to size up the situation. Then I stepped up and took Billy Jens's big pick ax, thinking that would show I knew he was the boss, and I said, "You look like you could use a rest." In fact, he didn't need a rest, and he liked the heavy pick best. As we started working he took an ax from one of the younger guys, and when I set down the big one for a break he grabbed it but never said a word. Oliver Leavitt himself sat on a long wooden sled next to his thermos and his VHF marine radio, silently gazing on the water and the ice chunks and bergs drifting by imperceptibly slowly on the calm surface. When I first went out on the sea ice with Iñupiaq hunters I was confused andsomewhat bored by long stops when, standing like statues, they stared at the horizon. I secretly thought these guys shouldn't smoke so much if they needed this much rest. One day I learned the purpose of the stillness. I was alone for a while at a whale lookout, pacing for warmth, when a hunter came to my side and took up that gazing posture, as if posing for a romantic painting of a noble Eskimo. Within a minute he pointed out a large polar bear that was approaching about a hundred yards away. To my eye, the bear's appearance was like magic, as if this hunter knew how to summon ghosts from their hiding places. Silent, motionless watching had made the bear visible and prevented us from being potential prey. The whiteness around us, which looked like a vast wreck, a static chaos without scale or reference, in fact was full of information for those who knew how to read it. But first, one must establish a pace slower than the change one wished to observe. A polar bear swimming past the Oliver Leavitt Camp stopped and paddled in place, raising its long neck far above the water like a periscope to scan the area. On the horizon, across the wide lead of open water, the white tips of jagged pressure ridges showed like the tips of a mountain range on a distant continent. No longer able to stay awake, I went to join the young guys in the tent. Like all Iñupiaq whalers, the crew used white canvas wall tents, smaller versions of the classic army tent, with sturdy lumber supports and panels of insulated plywood on the floor. A propane burner often brewed a pot of cowboy coffee (gritty coffee made by throwing grounds in with the water), but even when nothing was cooking the flame always stayed lit to keep the tent warm. The plywood grub box contained a bonanza of cookies, candy, and the Eskimos' favorite, frosted doughnuts. Warm meals arrived from home in plastic Igloo coolers: fried chicken, or aluuttigaaq (a delicious caribou stir-fry with thick gravy), or a treat of maktak, the whale's blubber and skin, raw or pickled. Anything with a lot of fat to keep you warm in cold weather. Next to the grub box were cases of Coke and 7-Up; the ice underneath kept them cool. Socks, gloves, and boot liners hung to dry on the ridgepole of the tent, but everyone had to sleep fully dressed in parkas, snow pants, and Arctic boots. Escaping breaking ice could depend on it; quick escapes happened several times a season. The men, as many as six or eight at a time, slept side by side on piles of blankets and the pelts of caribouand polar bear in an area the size of a king-sized bed. With sleep in short supply, close contact with other unwashed men was no barrier to drifting off. I woke at 5:30 a.m. to see more polar bears; this time a mother and cub were swimming by, the cub resting on the mother's back. Oliver was still sitting in the same place, looking out in the same direction. The ice continent across the water was closer now: the pressure-ridge mountains were entirely visible. Oliver invited me to sit, drink coffee, and talk. I had been told to keep quiet in whale camp. Crewmen in the whale camp and skin boat, the umiaq, should be quiet and harmonious. Bowhead whales could hear at a great distance and had been seen to divert their paths at a camp noise such as a slamming grub box. In the dark of winter, before the whales arrived, the women who sewed the ugruk (bearded seal) cover for the umiaq worked in calm and harmony. When a whaling season went badly, people often said it was because of some conflict going on in town. The Iñupiat dislike conflict. In whale camp, teenagers didn't speak until spoken to. But Oliver said, "Hell, you're not a kid." Oliver was a big, round man who used his face to tell you where you stood: he could switch quickly from a blank, inscrutable face, to an aggressive "just try me" face, to a knowing smile suggesting you could see half his cards but probably not the best ones. When he was a boy he shot ducks for elders who could no longer hunt for themselves. This skill gave him a small role in an event that helped start the militant phase of the movement for Alaska Native land claims. In May 1961, shortly after Alaska became a state, a game warden arrested a Barrow subsistence hunter for killing a duck out of season. A law made up far away, for reasons irrelevant to feeding Iñupiat families, closed duck hunting from March 10 to September 1, virtually the entire period migratory birds spent in the Arctic. Barrow villagers protested by holding a "duck-in"; they presented themselves to the game warden for arrest, each with a dead duck in hand, almost 150 men, women, and children in all. Oliver's crew provided most of the ducks, passing out about 150 of the 300 they had recently shot, so more people could turn themselves in (some took two, one for the arrest and one for dinner). Oliver first went to whale camp when he was in fifth grade. His father, who did odd jobs and unloaded freight, didn't have the wealth to outfit a whaling crew, so Oliver went with his uncles and learned from them in the traditional way, by watching, then doing, and receiving sharp correctionfor errors. One of his uncles would hit crewmen with a paddle; another was kindly--dry Iñupiaq humor can be more corrective than violence. Starting in eighth grade Oliver went away to a boarding school for Alaska Natives, graduated in 1963, received some vocational training, and lived in New York, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, then returned to Barrow in 1970. An oil company had made a huge find on the North Slope and Alaska Native claims were nearing approval in Congress. The Iñupiat would soon be rich and they needed the help of young men like Oliver who had seen the world. Sitting on the sled, Oliver was looking for whales and gauging the ice. In traditional spring whaling, the umiaq perches on the ice edge ready for launch. If a ...

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Book Description Farrar, Strauss Giroux-3pl, United States, 2005. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. In The Whale and the Supercomputer, scientists and natives wrestle with our changing climate in the land where it has hit first --and hardest A traditional Eskimo whale-hunting party races to shore near Barrow, Alaska-their comrades trapped on a floe drifting out to sea-as ice that should be solid this time of year gives way. Elsewhere, a team of scientists transverses the tundra, sleeping in tents, surviving on frozen chocolate, and measuring the snow every ten kilometers in a quest to understand the effects of albedo, the snow s reflective ability to cool the earth beneath it. Climate change isn t an abstraction in the far North. It is a reality that has already dramatically altered daily life, especially that of the native peoples who still live largely off the land and sea. Because nature shows her footprints so plainly here, the region is also a lure for scientists intent on comprehending the complexities of climate change. In this gripping account, Charles Wohlforth follows the two groups as they navigate a radically shifting landscape. The scientists attempt to decipher its smallest elements and to derive from them a set of abstract laws and models. The natives draw on uncannily accurate traditional knowledge, borne of long experience living close to the land. Even as they see the same things-a Native elder watches weather coming through too fast to predict; a climatologist notes an increased frequency of cyclonic systems-the two cultures struggle to reconcile their vastly different ways of comprehending the environment. With grace, clarity, and a sense of adventure, Wohlforth--a lifelong Alaskan--illuminates both ways of seeing a world in flux, and in the process, helps us to navigate a way forward as climate change reaches us all. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780865477148

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Book Description Farrar, Strauss Giroux-3pl, United States, 2005. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. In The Whale and the Supercomputer, scientists and natives wrestle with our changing climate in the land where it has hit first --and hardest A traditional Eskimo whale-hunting party races to shore near Barrow, Alaska-their comrades trapped on a floe drifting out to sea-as ice that should be solid this time of year gives way. Elsewhere, a team of scientists transverses the tundra, sleeping in tents, surviving on frozen chocolate, and measuring the snow every ten kilometers in a quest to understand the effects of albedo, the snow s reflective ability to cool the earth beneath it. Climate change isn t an abstraction in the far North. It is a reality that has already dramatically altered daily life, especially that of the native peoples who still live largely off the land and sea. Because nature shows her footprints so plainly here, the region is also a lure for scientists intent on comprehending the complexities of climate change. In this gripping account, Charles Wohlforth follows the two groups as they navigate a radically shifting landscape. The scientists attempt to decipher its smallest elements and to derive from them a set of abstract laws and models. The natives draw on uncannily accurate traditional knowledge, borne of long experience living close to the land. Even as they see the same things-a Native elder watches weather coming through too fast to predict; a climatologist notes an increased frequency of cyclonic systems-the two cultures struggle to reconcile their vastly different ways of comprehending the environment. With grace, clarity, and a sense of adventure, Wohlforth--a lifelong Alaskan--illuminates both ways of seeing a world in flux, and in the process, helps us to navigate a way forward as climate change reaches us all. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780865477148

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Book Description North Point Press. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 336 pages. Dimensions: 8.2in. x 5.4in. x 1.1in.Scientists and natives wrestle with our changing climate in the land where it has hit first--and hardestA traditional Eskimo whale-hunting party races to shore near Barrow, Alaska-their comrades trapped on a floe drifting out to sea-as ice that should be solid this time of year gives way. Elsewhere, a team of scientists transverses the tundra, sleeping in tents, surviving on frozen chocolate, and measuring the snow every ten kilometers in a quest to understand the effects of albedo, the snows reflective ability to cool the earth beneath it. Climate change isnt an abstraction in the far North. It is a reality that has already dramatically altered daily life, especially that of the native peoples who still live largely off the land and sea. Because nature shows her footprints so plainly here, the region is also a lure for scientists intent on comprehending the complexities of climate change. In this gripping account, Charles Wohlforth follows the two groups as they navigate a radically shifting landscape. The scientists attempt to decipher its smallest elements and to derive from them a set of abstract laws and models. The natives draw on uncannily accurate traditional knowledge, borne of long experience living close to the land. Even as they see the same things-a Native elder watches weather coming through too fast to predict; a climatologist notes an increased frequency of cyclonic systems-the two cultures struggle to reconcile their vastly different ways of comprehending the environment. With grace, clarity, and a sense of adventure, Wohlforth--a lifelong Alaskan--illuminates both ways of seeing a world in flux, and in the process, helps us to navigate a way forward as climate change reaches us all. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9780865477148

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