Charles Wohlforth
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Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, April 30, 2004

Writer Connects Whalers, Warmer Weather


Sentinel Staff Writer

Anchorage-based writer Charles Wohlforth didn’t use a lot of complex scientific jargon in his new book on global climate change, and he didn’t have to.

By focusing largely on a group of Inupiat whalers in Barrow, Wohlforth makes the point in “The Whale and the Supercomputer” that climate change is a real problem that is going to affect everyone in the near future.

“When you’re a writer and you try to tell a story it’s always people that are the most interesting thing,” said Wohlforth in a telephone interview with the Sentinel this week.

He will be in Sitka Monday evening for a reading from his book, and to show slides illustrating his findings. The program will begin at 7 p.m. in the Pioneer Home Chapel. It is free and open to the public.

“What I found to my surprise was that the whalers in Barrow had a very deep understanding of what was going on and also were starting to learn to deal with it,” Wohlforth told the Sentinel. “This was a human story that I could tell that had a lot impact beyond what you get from sort of a broad scientific telling of the issue.”

For millenia, whaling has been at the center of the human culture in the vicinity of present-day Barrow. But as the polar ice cap surrounding North America’s northernmost community melts earlier each spring and freezes later each fall, whaling and life in general are changing in Barrow.

In his book Wohlforth writes about his own experience on the ice with struggling whalers, and he shares the stories of elders who remember when there was ice along the shore as late as June and July, and the thaw did not occur in April or May as it does now.

A freelance writer and author of Alaska travel guides, Wohlforth said he became interested in climate change after noticing winters in his hometown of Anchorage were getting warmer than they were when he was a kid in the 1970s.

Wohlforth said he knew Alaska was at the forefront of climate change research in the world, and initially he planned to write about this research and its findings. But very soon, he said, his interest broadened and he started writing about people.

“As I started researching what was going on scientifically I noticed some of the most interesting science was studying the Natives and studying what the Natives know, and going sort of inside that holistic view of the environment,” he said.

“Climate change has been treated in the past as a political and scientific issue, but really it’s a human issue and I think it’s a cultural issue too.”

Wohlforth first began his research for the book in Barrow in the summer of 2001and made return trips for the spring and fall whaling seasons in 2002.

In Barrow, Wohlforth not only spent time with the whalers but with the scores of scientific researchers studying the arctic environment. The researchers also play heavily into his book, with their supercomputers and modern tools contrasting traditional and, at times, equally effective Native science.

Wohlforth said scientists flock to Barrow because polar regions, with their sensitive ice caps, are the first places to be affected by global climate change. But recently, he said, the effects of climate change have become more noticeable in the south as well, where ecosystems are observed moving north at a rate of one kilometer per year.

“This is probably the biggest issue facing mankind in the next couple of centuries. We’re going to need to find completely new sources of energy that don’t affect the environment, and before something of that magnitude can take place there’ll have to be world social movement,” he said.

“Nobody is going to be able to force anybody to do this. People are going to have to decide to do this on their own. That’s a lesson that can be taught by the Eskimos, that’s what’s already going on in the North Slope.”

Wohlforth said he hopes his book helps people recognize the impact of climate change in their own lives, and helps them prepare to make changes to deal with it, but he said he did not intend the book to offer predictions or solutions.

“I simply don’t believe we have the ability to predict what is going to happen. ... I think there are some basic predictions you can make like rising sea levels and warming temperatures, but even with that it could be that the effect of what we’re doing will cause a change in ocean currents and we’ll have cooling temperatures,” he said.

“I think what we do know is that things are going to change and we’re not going to like a lot of that change because we really rely on stability.”

“The Whale and the Supercomputer,” published by the North Point Press division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, was released in mid-April. Wohlforth is making his visit to Sitka as part of a book tour of Alaska and the Lower 48. His stay in Sitka is sponsored by the Sitka Conservation Society.

At the Monday evening presentation Wohlforth will read selections from his book and show pictures of his whaling trips, arctic landscapes and of research projects in the far north.