Arctic Son

PBS Premiere: Aug. 21, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Interview: Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert's book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, began as a groundbreaking investigative series into global warming for The New Yorker magazine, for which she continues to report on the topic. The book has been widely compared to Rachel Carson's galvanizing environmental classic Silent Spring. Kolbert met with top scientists and policy makers all over the world; she went to the Arctic firsthand, to Iceland and Alaska; she slept in a tent on the ice in Greenland.

Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a CatastropheElizabeth Kolbert is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
Bloomsbury USA, 2006.

Read an excerpt about permafrost in Alaska from Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

Field Notes opens in Shishmaref, Alaska, the tiny island Inupiat village in many ways similar to the Gwitchin village of Old Crow in the Yukon, where much of "Arctic Son" is set. Both villages are isolated, the residents travel via dogsled, or more recently, snowmobile, and largely depend on subsistence hunting for their food. As the Arctic begins to melt, it is places like these that are first and most dramatically affected, and their residents recognize that life as they know it is now utterly altered.

POV writer Rebecca Bengal interviewed Kolbert earlier this summer to learn more about the effects of climate change on the land and the culture of people living near the Arctic Circle.

Bengal: When you started Field Notes from a Catastrophe, did you have any idea of what you would discover? What did you expect to find, and what surprised you most?

Elizabeth KolbertElizabeth Kolbert: Well, I had some idea of what I was going to discover, otherwise to be honest I wouldn't have set out on the project. I think what surprised -- and dismayed -- me the most was the inexorable nature of climate change. What I think people fail to appreciate, or at least what I failed to appreciate, is the huge time lag in the system. We have already set in motion changes on a geological scale, and even though we are not feeling many of them yet, it is virtually impossible to reverse them. Even if we were to disappear off the face of the earth tomorrow, the impact of all the carbon dioxide we have poured into the atmosphere would continue to be felt for centuries, indeed in some realms for millennia.

Stan Sr. on his dogsledStan Sr. on his dogsled near Old Crow.

Bengal: I was especially struck by the passage in your book in which you describe the makeup of the Greenland ice sheet. Metaphorically, you write about the glacier as a repository for historical and cultural memory; more critically, you point out that it also contains 8 percent of the world's fresh-water supply.

The most recent layers are thick and airy, while the older layers are thin and dense, which means that to drill through the ice is to descend backward in time, at first gradually, and then much more rapidly. A hundred and thirty-eight feet down, there is snow that fell during the time of the American Civil War, 2,500 feet down, snow from the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, and 5,350 feet down, snow from the days when the cave painters of Lascaux were slaughtering bison. At the very bottom, 10,000 feet down, there is a snow that fell on central Greenland before the start of the last ice age, more than a hundred thousand years ago.

What is being lost?

Kolbert: I don't know that anyone is ready to say that the Greenland ice sheet is being lost, though certainly the signs are not encouraging.

It's important to realize that the ice sheet is a relic of the last ice age. It's not cold enough now for such a massive ice sheet to form, and it is sustained only by its own enormous size. At the center of the ice sheet, the elevation is over 10,000 feet, and that ensures that the ice never melts. If that elevation starts to fall as more and more ice is lost, then processes could be set in motion that would eventually lead to the destruction of the entire ice sheet. Those processes, once started, would be impossible to stop. The ice sheet contains enough water to raise global sea levels by 20 feet. So it's hard to exaggerate its significance.

Bengal: The mask-wearing dogs, "drunken forests," tracts of forest burning every summer, and houses literally being split apart in your chapter on Alaska seem like fabulistic details. But these are all realities in the Fairbanks area, and in Old Crow, where Stanley Sr.'s friend points out that 90-degree temperatures in the summertime are causing permafrost to thaw. What happens when the permafrost really starts to thaw?

Kolbert: Permafrost contains a great deal of plant material that has never decomposed. As the permafrost starts to thaw, there is good reason to believe that the decomposition process will begin. That means that the permafrost will become a source of carbon dioxide or methane, which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas. This is an example of a positive feedback to warming, and it's a very frightening one.

(POV: Read an excerpt about permafrost in Alaska from Field Notes from a Catastrophe.)

Bengal: At one point in the film, Stanley Sr. says, "Global warming, that's just the beginning of what? What's next before we feel the consequences of what we're doing to this planet?" If we do nothing now, what will life be like in the year 2050?

Kolbert: It's very hard to say what life will be like in 2050. In part that's because we don't know whether any action will be taken to reduce emissions, and in part it's because regional climate predictions are hard to make. Definitely, we know the world as a whole will be warmer and sea levels will be higher. In many places, it will probably also be much drier. Drought is probably the first really dangerous global warming impact that many people will experience.

Bengal: Climate change cannot be reversed, but can it be stopped?

Kolbert: No, climate change cannot be stopped. That's because of the time lag that I mentioned before. It's like a train speeding away from the station; it has so much momentum, you can't suddenly bring it to a halt. What we can do is slow climate change. We can also determine what the magnitude of the change will be. If we continue along our present path, then the world in a century or so will be a very different, and probably much more inhospitable place. If we take very dramatic action, then perhaps we can preserve the ecosystems upon which we depend.

Bengal: You write in Field Notes that entire books have been devoted to the history of efforts to draw attention to the problem of global warming. As a writer who continues to report on these issues, what are some of the greatest challenges you've faced?

Kolbert: I think the greatest challenge is the prospective nature of the problem. Even though the world is already showing clear signs of warming, the real dangers always lie in the future, in the warming that we are putting, as it were, into the pipeline. People tend to respond to the here and now. It's hard to get them to pay attention to disasters that are decades away. But it's crucial to pay attention now, because that decades from now, the problems may well be insurmountable.

Bengal: Especially in the aftermath of An Inconvenient Truth, it seems as though every day a new article or list of things individuals can do to help slow global warming appears in the media. What do you think are the most important things an American concerned about global warming can do to improve the current situation and set us on the right path for the future?

Kolbert: There are many, many things individuals can do to reduce their energy use. But I think the most important thing we can do is elect people who will take action. I don't think global warming can be dealt with effectively on an individual, voluntary level; the problem is just too huge. We need national and international policies that will bring about very, very dramatic changes. People have to be willing to embrace those changes, and to vote accordingly.

Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999. She has written dozens of pieces for the magazine, including profiles of Senator Hillary Clinton, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Her series on global warming, "The Climate of Man," appeared in The New Yorker in the spring of 2005; it won a National Magazine Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's magazine-writing award, and the National Academies' communication award in the newspaper/magazine category. Her book on global warming, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, was published in March 2006.

Prior to joining the staff of The New Yorker, Ms. Kolbert was a political reporter for The New York Times. She is a graduate of Yale University. Ms. Kolbert lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with her husband and three sons.

Rebecca Bengal has contributed interviews and features to several POV companion sites. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared or will soon be published in The Washington Post Magazine, The Believer, Southwest Review, Print and other magazines.