We have all heard about climate change and global warming (even if our leadership in Washington still denies it exists) and The Whale and the Supercomputer documents some of the changes taking place from the top of the world, in the blinding white environs of the Alaskan Arctic. Author Charles Wohlforth, who possesses an intimate knowledge and love of Alaska that is obvious here, takes us on an awe-inspiring travelogue through the highest points of the world, where scientists and native Eskimos both struggle with the oncoming changes to their world, and to the world in general. The title, in fact, refers to the merging of two ways of viewing the world, the world of native culture (whale) and the world of hard science (supercomputer). This book proves that both views are needed if we are to understand nature and its volatile changes.
I am not a winter/snow person, but this highly detailed and richly engaging portrait of Alaskan Arctic life made me want to go there and spend the rest of my life amidst the honest and good people of the Inupiaq. This is actually two books in one; a superbly written account of life in an environment few of us will ever travel to and most of us don’t even know exists, and a well-documented study of the ongoing research to find definitive proof of global climate change and how it might be halted.
The author himself spent years of his life among the native Inupiaq, befriending many of them and getting a first-hand glimpse of their simple lives as they go about the business of putting food on their table and keeping shelter over their heads. That they survive mainly on whale, and whaling is at the heart of their tradition and their community, has often come under fire by well-meaning but misguided animal rights activists. This book shows how these native communities must whale to survive, and how much respect and reverence they have for all of the animals and sea creatures they interact with. Unlike other nations that whale for profit, the Inupiaq whale to live.
I was drawn deeply into the stories of both the native Inupiaq struggling to make sense of the changes that have begun to effect their livelihood, as well as the intriguing stories of the many “white” scientists and researchers working in the harsh and frigid conditions to unlock the keys to Arctic ecology, and global climate change. These scientists were often shunned by the natives, but many were able to stick around long enough to build strong and beneficial relationships, and the result was a combination of hard science and native knowledge that helped shape the course of many research programs initiated in the area. By using the intuitive wisdom and knowledge of the people who see the natural changes around them day to day, scientists gained a better understanding of exactly what is happening to our climate in a part of the world where often those changes make their first subtle appearances.
By writing two stories that parallel one another - that of a culture struggling for survival and that of a band of scientists determined to find clues to a mystery plaguing humanity - the author has created a truly page-turning, mesmerizing and informative book that will not only deepen our understanding of Arctic life, but will also prompt us to take a look at the growing body of evidence of climate change. Also interesting are the solutions being offered by the community of scientists, including returning spent carbon back into oil fields, a practice being examined much more closely by environmentalists (although turning completely to alternative energy sources and renewable energy is still the primary goal). This book looks at climate change from both sides of the fence; that of the environmentalists and that of the scientists, yet also shows how politics and oil play a big part in climate change research and the drive for solutions (and, I was surprised to find, the natives don’t necessarily shun the oil companies).
When I finished reading The Whale and the Supercomputer, I suffered from a strange phenomenon the author describes in the books many times as the inability to come back to daily reality once you’ve spent time out on the tundras and the ice sheets. Many of the scientists and especially one particular school teacher named April, whose story just enchanted me, struggled with “wilderness euphoria” that quickly turned to major depression and social anxieties when they had to return back to their mainland lives. Yes, I felt this, too, once I finished the book.
For someone who shuns cold and snow, I found myself longing to return to the Alaskan Arctic, the Inupiaq, and the brilliant and passionate scientists devoted to tracking the path of climate change across a wickedly white landscape. As for climate change itself: the jury is still deliberating on just how bad things are, and how much worse they will get. But once thing is for certain. It does exist, and it will sooner than later affect every one of us, from the Arctic to Antarctica.