Field Notes from a Catastrophe

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Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change
Field Notes from a Catastrophe.jpg
1st edition cover.
Author Elizabeth Kolbert
Country United States
Language English
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Bloomsbury USA
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 225 pp (2007 paperback edition)
ISBN 1-59691-125-5
OCLC 62134789
363.738/74 22
LC Class QC981.8.G56 K655 2006

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change is a 2006 non-fiction book by Elizabeth Kolbert. The book attempts to bring attention to the causes and effects of global climate change. Kolbert travels around the world where climate change is affecting the environment in significant ways. These locations include Alaska, Greenland, the Netherlands, and Iceland. The environmental effects that are apparent consist of rising sea levels, thawing permafrost, diminishing ice shelves, changes in migratory patterns, and increasingly devastating forest fires due to loss of precipitation. She also speaks with many leading scientists about their individual research and findings. Kolbert brings to attention the attempts of large corporations such as Exxon Mobil and General Motors to influence politicians and discredit scientists. She also writes about America’s reluctance in the global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Leading this resistance, she explained, was the Bush administration, which was opposed to the Kyoto protocol since it was ratified in 2005. Kolbert concludes the book by examining the events surrounding the events of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and arguing that governments have the knowledge and technologies to prepare for such disasters but choose to ignore the signs until it is too late.[1]


Chapter One – Shishmaref, Alaska[edit]

The location of Shishmaref.

Kolbert visits Shishmaref and Fairbanks, Alaska, to speak with both the townspeople and scientists about the effect global warming is having in Alaska. In Shishmaref, towns are being forced from coastal regions because ice that had once protected these towns from storms and large waves have melted. In Fairbanks, Kolbert met with scientist Vladimir Romanovsky to study how global warming is affecting the permafrost levels in Alaska. Romanovsky’s research shows that as permafrost melts it releases carbon dioxide, which has been trapped in the permafrost for thousands of years and is harmful to the environment. Kolbert also discusses the spectrometer used by Donald Perovich on the expedition, Des Groseilliers. The spectrometer was used to measure the light reflected off the ice and snow. The discovery that the snow reflected more than the ocean is important because the ocean is being heated by global warming and melting the ice, which is making water levels rise.

Chapter Two – A Warmer Sky[edit]

This section explains the history of researchers exploring human influence on climate change. At the beginning, it states that global warming is not a fad, because it has been researched since the mid-19th century. John Tyndall was the first to research global warming; he did this by creating the first spectrophotometer. This is an instrument used to measure the absorptive properties of gases. Through his research of gases, he discovered what is today called “The Greenhouse Effect.” The Greenhouse effect is the absorption and retention of heat from radiation. After the death of John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius took over his position as the main researcher of global warming. He was the first to connect industrialization to climate change and even today NASA scientists credit him with insightful predictions: “His understanding of the role of carbon dioxide in heating Earth, even at that early date, led him to predict that if atmospheric carbon dioxide doubled, Earth would become several degrees warmer.”[2] After the death of Arrhenius, most scientists believed that if CO
levels were rising at all, they were rising very slowly. In the mid-1950s, Charles David Keeling found a more precise way to record CO
levels and began recording the data. He brought us the Keeling Curve which shows the steady rise of CO
levels since 1958.

Chapter Three – Under the Glacier[edit]

Kolbert travels to a research station in Greenland called Swiss Camp that was set up in 1990 and built into the ice floes. Kolbert meets Konrad Steffan, the director of Swiss Camp, who studies the meteorological conditions on the ice sheets at the equilibrium line (the point at which winter snow and summer snow melt are supposed to be exactly in balance). Steffan’s research shows that the glaciers have been melting faster (at a rate of 12 cubic miles per year), creating much more flooding in the area during the warmer months. These glaciers contain vast amounts of fresh water, which, when melted into the salt water of the oceans, begins to change ocean current patterns, thus resulting in some places around the world becoming colder and some becoming warmer. From obtaining ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet, it has been found that the average temperatures have risen twenty degrees within the past ten years thus resulting in the beginning of the disintegration of the entire Greenland ice sheet, which will be impossible to stop. It has also been found that rapid warming has occurred in the past, which then proceeded to fall into ice age conditions. In November 2004, there was a study presented in Reykjavík, Iceland, that explained how the Arctic climate is warming and the United States responded by stating they would effectively take action to combat the problem but would not make it an obligation. The scientists studying the situation have seen how humans have become the dominating factor in influencing climate change; in the professional world, global warming is not necessarily thought to be a natural process.

Chapter Four – The Butterfly and the Toad[edit]

This chapter describes Kolbert's interviews with scientists from around the world who have conducted experiments to prove that climate change inevitably affects many organisms' genetic structures and habitats. Kolbert attempts to reveal that global warming is the cause for these events. She interviews three biologists, Chris Thomas, William Bradshaw and Christina Holzapfel, and one paleoecologist, Thomas Web III. Kolbert follows scientific observations based upon the studies of the Comma Butterfly, the mosquito Wyeomyia smithii, the Golden Toad and pollen grains, among many other studies. Kolbert is concerned with the frightening reality that if species are being genetically changed and on the verge of extinction that the availability of our natural resources for future will be in jeopardy.

Chapter Five – The Curse of the Akkad[edit]

Kolbert visits GISS, a former branch of NASA, which analyzes and produces various geographic models to demonstrate the behavior of the atmosphere, land surfaces, and ice sheets. According to GISS, more and more droughts are being triggered, which we aren’t able to adapt to with our way of living. This problem also arose in ancient civilizations, such as with the Mayans and in the city of Shekhna, when they reached their technological peak. The ancient city of Shekhna in present-day Syria has shown evidence that the culture died from drought. Kolbert cites scientific evidence based on geological models that chart the geographic downfall of other ancient civilizations that have experienced climate change. During ancient times, however, the technology had yet to be developed and they did not have the proper scientific abilities to adapt to extreme changes like massive drought. Kolbert argues that we may be technologically advanced, but as we continue to progress, we are becoming more and more destructive to the environment as well.

Chapter Six – Floating Houses[edit]

In chapter six, Kolbert visits the Netherlands where the Dutch have made many provisions to prevent the increasing problem of widespread flooding. Water-ministry official Eelke Turkstra predicts that the Nieuwe Merwede canal will rise several feet above the local dikes around 2100 due to the flooding. The two main problems are caused by warming water that leads to expansion and raises the sea level, another is due to precipitation changes produced by a warming Earth.

Turkstra believes that instead of building more dikes, the existing dikes should be dismantled to make room for the rising water. He wants to buy polders (land that has been laboriously reclaimed from the water) from farmers and lower surrounding dikes around them to create more area for the rising water. Then, Kolbert talks to Dura Vermeer who creates amphibious homes which will float on the water if a flood were to occur.

Chapter Seven – Business as Usual[edit]

Kolbert interviews Robert Socolow, the co-director for the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, about BAU or “business as usual”, which is a future in which current emissions trends continue without being checked. Socolow came up with a plan to help keep carbon emissions down but in order for his plans to work they must start taking effect as soon as possible. Socolow’s plan consisted of a fifteen point system where each point, known as a “stabilization wedge”, would reduce carbon emission by one billion metric tons a year. The wedges consisted of finding alternative fuel sources such as wind, solar and nuclear power, along with developing new technology and upgrading current technology to reduce carbon emission. Socolow argues that the government needs to get involved in order help motivate people to lower carbon emissions. Kolbert also interviews Marty Hoffert, Professor of physics at New York University. Hoffert believes that in order to fight global warming, people have to come up with new ways to generate power without producing carbon. This can be achieved, as he proposes, through satellite solar power (SSP). SSP means collecting solar energy using orbiting satellites which beam the power to ground using microwaves for collection by a rectenna. Energy can be transferred to Earth 24 hours a day without interference from clouds or nightfall. Hoffert also argues that we must change our view on global warming and divert from the BAU or else our civilization will not last.

Chapter Eight – The Day After Kyoto[edit]

The Kyoto Protocol, active as of February 16, 2005, is a worldwide effort between nations to control greenhouse gas emissions. It began in 1992 and was supported by the U.S. president George H.W. Bush, who attended the U.N. Framework Convention where the U.S. agreed, along with other Annex 1 countries (China, Canada, Japan and nations of Europe included), to “return their emissions to 1990 levels,” or below. Clinton, succeeding president to Bush, also supported the protocol, but emission levels kept rising and not much was accomplished during his term. The Bush administration pulled the U.S. out of Kyoto in 2001 (it was one of only two nations to do so), where George W. Bush, who once promised solutions for controlling CO2 emissions during his campaign, now took a different stand that no longer supported Kyoto because, as he said to the public, the “state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change”, are “incomplete”. Greenhouse gases are increasing rapidly (20% since 1990) and the US accounts for 34% of Annex 1 emissions. Since 2000, the Bush administration began using a “greenhouse gas intensity system”, which measures the ratio of emissions to economic output as a way of measuring emissions as a whole. Kolbert argues that the system is misleading and favors industrial development because while greenhouse gas levels are actually rising, according to this system they are supposedly falling. According to Kolbert, the improper feed of information to the public is also supplement by books and web groups funded by huge corporations such as Exxon Mobil and General Motors, who are giving out information contradicting proven and alarming scientific evidence about global warming. Articles produced are falsely stating, among many things, that weather can’t be predicted ahead of time, global warming isn’t real and hasn’t been proven, or that a warming climate is something to celebrate.

Chapter Nine – Burlington, Vermont[edit]

Kolbert writes about Burlington, Vermont’s largest city. Years ago, the citizens decided to stand up to global warming by using less power instead of buying more. The mayor of Burlington, Peter Clavelle, who has been mayor since 1989, came up with a program that encourages contractors to engage not in demolition but in “deconstruction”. This helps the city save energy by reducing waste and cutting down the need for new materials. Burlington’s electric department (BED) has a wind turbine that provided enough power for thirty homes and gets half of its energy from renewable sources, such as its 50 megawatt power plant that runs off of wood chips. The BED also leases compact fluorescent light bulbs for twenty cents a month because a family who uses these bulbs can cut their electricity bill by 10 percent. The city of Burlington estimates that their energy saving projects over the course of this lifetime will prevent the release of 175,000 tons of carbon. Burlington residents also eat locally and have turned old waste sites into an assortment of community gardens and cooperatives, the waste from these gardens is taken to a composting factory, and turned back into soil, making this process a “closed loop”. Clavelle’s plan has begun to pick up across America beginning with Greg Nickles, the mayor of Seattle, who created a set of principles called the “US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement”. This agreement has been signed by over a hundred and seventy mayors, representing about thirty – six million people. This agreement is trying to prove how much can be done at the local level and Clavelle hopes that more cities will adopt this plan. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California later issued an executive order to drastically reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions.

Chapter Ten – Man in The Anthropocene[edit]

Kolbert wraps up the book's main ideas by introducing a few new ideas and themes about climate change that had not been previously mentioned. The chapter starts out saying that modern humans are one of the primary influences on our environment and that we are entering an era aptly named the “Anthropocene” — the age of Homo sapiens. Kolbert also discusses the impacts and discovery of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. Most of what she discusses CFCs in this chapter is based around the discovery of their negative impact on our ozone layer and the fact that this discovery only came about by accident. Kolbert also writes that we as a species can either come together to survive, or protect our self-interests as Earth’s climate continues to spiral out of our control. As Kolbert points out at the end of the chapter, if nothing changes in the way society looks at climate change, the world will tear itself apart. There is proof of this today, as entire countries evacuate due to severe weather changes, or others fight to control major resources such as food, water, and shelter. As people living in developed countries, we often take these basic needs for granted and do not realize how precious they really are. where humans will no longer be able to reverse the effects.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ “Global Warming.” NASA Facts. Goddard Space Flight Center[dead link]
  3. ^ Marina, Gosnell (March 16, 2006). "In Epoch of Man, Earth Takes a Beating". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 February 2014. In a final chapter on the "Anthropocene," a newly minted term meaning the geological epoch defined by man, Ms. Kolbert turns from her mostly unbiased field reporting to give her own opinion. She is not optimistic, in large part because it appears that Anthropocene man can't be counted on to do the right thing. "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself," she writes, "but that is what we are now in the process of doing."