Book Review: The Whale and the Supercomputer

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change
By Charles Wohlforth
North Point Press, 2004
Reviewed by Jonathan Beard

For most of us, the threat of global warming seems vague, distant: winters getting half a degree, even a whole degree, warmer over a decade may even sound appealing. But for the Eskimo of Barrow, Alaska, climate change is as clear as the water at the edge of town in May. The ice that used to enable them to reach out into the sea to hunt whales now thaws long before summer. Charles Wohlforth, an Alaskan writer, begins this fascinating portrait of native cultures, scientific studies, wildlife, and politics on just such thin ice.

Wohlforth spent two years dividing his time between two worlds: that of the Inupiaq natives of Barrow, the northernmost town in Alaska, and that of scientists studying climate change. With his sharp eyes and ears always open, he goes out on whale hunts, eats chunks of fried blubber, and listens to National Public Radio with the Inupiaq—some who have never left the Arctic and others who know every Metro stop in Washington, DC. Chapters about native life and the impact of long summers and mild winters alternate with chapters about scientists trying to understand the same phenomena by counting the leaves of tundra plants, measuring snow depth, and most ambitiously constructing global climate models—no two of which seem to agree.

Although these two worlds sometimes overlap, they are divided by different ways of knowing and different priorities. Consider the case of bowhead whales. According to government scien-tists, they had reached the brink of extinction. So in 1977, the International Whaling Commission banned bowhead hunting. The Inupiaq, relying on a thousand years of experience and on their own sightings, insisted the whales were abundant. The Eskimo (the term they prefer) were right in the end. But Wohlforth points out that it cost scientists US$10 million to “discover” something the Eskimo already knew.

He finds a rich trove of ironies as he talks to people in Alaska and many of the 48 contiguous states. For the conservation-minded reader, these will be both eye-opening and disconcerting. Scientists, for instance, frequently arrive in Barrow with a “wilderness ethic” that inspires them to wear Polartec® and travel light. For the natives—and Wohlforth’s sympathies lie almost entirely with them—such an ethic is ridiculous. They no more want to keep the Alaskan wilderness pristine than most landowners in New Jersey want to keep their holdings pristine. They want to survive, be warm indoors in the winter, and hunt and eat the whales and caribou that their ancestors ate. And when they set up camp before whaling, they bring doughnuts, cookies, soda, and space heaters for the tents.

The larger irony here is that burning fossil fuels, as Wohlforth notes in his preface, is driving the climate change that is destroying the Alaskan winter—but the natives are scarcely helpless victims. For one thing, they owe their prosperity and political power of the past few decades to the Alaska Pipeline and to their cut of revenue from the oil it carries south. When the sea, its power unbroken by ice, sweeps closer to their homes in Barrow, the Eskimo worry. But going back to the bad old days of cold homes and months of isolation is not an option.

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