Charles Wohlforth
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Visiting writer warms to village knowledge of climate change
by Carey James
Staff Writer

A lifelong Alaskan, Charles Wohlforth saw something after years as a reporter and writer that much of the state seemed to miss.

While many Alaskans' eyes glazed over with the mention of global warming and its impacts on the environment ‹ except maybe to slap an "Alaskans for Global Warming" bumper sticker on an SUV ‹Wohlforth noticed swarms of scientists moving through the state, heading northward. It piqued his interest and evolved into his recently released book "The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change."

Wohlforth will present a slide presentation of pictures from the adventures of his research for the book while whaling near Barrow and discuss his experience Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Land's End Resort.

"There's a huge amount of science going on in the Arctic and Alaska is the leading edge of that Arctic research, but nobody in Alaska knows about it," Wohlforth said Monday in an interview with the Homer News. "The way I approached it was what topic could be more important than this."

Wohlforth first dove into the monstrous subject of climate change through a story he wrote for the Anchorage Press. That story was well received by the northern communities as well as by scientists and gave him, as he puts it, a calling card that helped him connect others in Barrow and eventually go miles onto the ice with a traditional Eskimo whaling crew.

"That's an invitation not extended to very many people," Wohlforth said. "But once the decision was made, they were amazingly hospitable."

There he spent days several miles offshore on unstable ice and even helped harvest a 55-foot bowhead whale with hundreds of others from the community. Wohlforth's face lights up when he describes his research.

"Being involved with a group of people working together very hard around the clock was a huge privilege," he said. "It's sort of like an Amish barn-raising. There's no real parallel in our culture."

His experiences changed the focus of the book from the scientific research to a data set of another variety ‹ that of the Native Alaskans who have lived and hunted the shores for generations.

Their experiences, Wohlforth said, and their huge span of knowledge about their environment add up to a wealth the scientific community seems unable to grasp, something even a supercomputer could never process.

"There is a sense that science understands everything, but there are huge gaps in what we know," Wohlforth said. "We don't know how much snow falls in the Arctic, for example. There is much more that we don't know than what we do."

For the people who live in the arctic, global warming, while mystifying to scientists, is day-to-day reality. Different vegetation, different insects, unusually warm days and of course, an ever-diminishing ice pack are changing their lives dramatically. Coastal erosion is on overdrive, and traditions are being modified to accommodate the changing environment.

The rate at which global warming has changed the earth in northern climates far supercedes anything scientists predicted, Wohlforth said.

"Nobody ever predicted it would warm this fast. It's way off the charts," he said.

As Wohlforth tells it, the Arctic not only is a result of our global climate, it is also a contributor to it, like a giant deep freeze that keeps everything else regulated. As the permafrost melts, for example, extraordinary amounts of carbon released from undecomposed vegetation will blow any impact the combustible engine ever had off the books, he said. Also, the snow and ice pack reflects back into the atmosphere nearly all the heat from the sun. When the snow melts, the earth will suddenly be absorbing that much more heat.

While the Natives to the Arctic might not have known the exact percentage of the light that snow reflected back into the sky, they did know how to gauge where water was miles away by looking for the spot in the sky, a spot where all that light wasn't being reflected.

"It's like a dark stripe in the sky, a crack in the universe," Wohlforth said.

Though Wohlforth has obviously absorbed huge amounts of knowledge about global warming and the science behind it, he stresses that is not what the book is about.

"There is plenty of science in the book, but there have been other books written about the science of climate change," he said.

Still, he has thoughts about the future, some positive, some concerned. The changes in the climate are real, they are happening now (just look around you at the spruce bark beetle epidemic for proof, he said) and they will change our lives.

The good news is that the first steps in slowing down the amount of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere will be easy, Wohlforth predicts.

"We are so wasteful now, it's sort of the low-hanging fruit," Wohlforth said.

Will society adjust its needs to a more environmentally friendly approach before things get too far gone?

People already are, Wohlforth said, pointing to the sold out lots of hybrid cars across the country.

"Most of us don't want our great-great grandchildren to be cursing us," he said. "Most people would like to see the world left at least in as good shape as they got it."

The down side, however, is that it will likely only be our great-great grandchildren who reap the benefits of changes today's society makes to reduce carbon emissions. The cycles of the earth take hundreds of years to adjust, thus putting today's generation's efforts ‹ and downfalls ‹ far beyond our lifetime.

Still, Wohlforth said he is optimistic. Perhaps the biggest asset would be if the knowledge of the scientific world and the Native communities of the north could somehow communicate with each other, share knowledge before the window to understand the changing environment closes.

Just as you wouldn't expect a lifelong fisherman to stand in a classroom and teach what he knows about the sea or expect a great chef to get all his knowledge from a cookbook, scientists can't expect to learn about the Arctic through data sets and summer trips, Wohlforth said.

"They are different styles of knowledge," he said. "Two people from these two different points of view need to get together and talk.

Wohlforth, a Princeton graduate and former writer for the Homer News starting in 1986 as well as a reporter with the Anchorage Daily News during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said he's planning some novels, as well as another book and lecture tour this fall.

The Homer lecture and slide show is sponsored by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and the Homer Bookstore. Books will be on sale.

"It's supposed to be a great presentation," said center office manager Lisa Ellington, "A lot of people want to know what's going on in the villages."