A journalist and native Alaskan comes to grips with the impact of climate change in an Arctic region where science predicted it would first show its hand.
Wohlforth delves into the two disparate cultures most affected by the steady warming that he asserts “everybody in Alaska knows is a fact.” While the Iñupiaq Eskimos embark on increasingly perilous whale hunts, scientific researchers struggle against the elements in order to amass data that might unlock a view of the future. The author, a sometime outdoor trekker, is at his descriptive best when accompanying native hunters out onto sea ice in search of the migrating Bowhead whales that support their subsistence tradition. Wind, wave, and mysterious puddles of brine can conspire to cause sudden fractures, sending hunters scurrying frantically for shore (often tens of miles away) towing sledges, boats, and massive amounts of butchered whale meat with their snowmobiles. As warmed air generates fog—now more than ever an added threat—any wrong turn can lead to a watery death, or a lonely one on a shrinking floe far at sea where the likeliest companion is a hungry polar bear. Wohlforth’s prime inquiry: What can these imperiled people, who have intimately studied climate for generations, share with formal science to help answer the big questions? First, you have to get scientists to listen, the author explains, and that can be a tough job if they would rather be out collecting core samples from snowbanks or sea ice in wintertime. One anecdotal gem involves an Iñupiaq known for uncannily accurate weather predictions who is initially thought by scientists to use some form of meditation; they later find out that he unerringly takes to his tent to hear the morning forecast from KBAR radio.
Despite tedious forays into the politics of research grants, newcomer Wohlforth offers a revealing look at climate change where it counts.