The Whale and the Supercomputer On the Northern Front of Climate Change

Charles Wohlforth

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology
Nominated for the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize

A traditional Eskimo whaling crew races for shore near Barrow, Alaska, while their comrades drift out to sea: ice that should be solidly anchored at this time of year is giving way. Elsewhere, a team of scientists with frosty beards traverses the breadth of Alaska, measuring the thinning snow every ten kilometers in an effort to understand albedo, the heat-deflecting property that helps regulate the planet's temperature.

Climate change isn't an abstraction in the Far North. It is a reality that has already altered daily life for Native people who still live largely off the land and sea. Likewise, its heavy Arctic footprint has lured scientists seeking to uncover its mysteries. In this gripping account, Charles Wohlforth follows both groups as they navigate a radically shifting landscape. Scientists drill into the environment's smallest details to derive abstract laws that may explain the whole. Natives know the whole through uncannily accurate traditional knowledge built over generations. The two cultures see the same changes—the melting of ancient ice, the animals and insects in new places—but they struggle to reconcile their different ways of comprehending what these changes mean.

With grace, clarity, and a sense of adventure, Wohlforth illuminates both ways of seeing a world in flux and, in the process, helps us to envision a way forward as climate change envelops us all.


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The Whale and the Supercomputer
CHAPTER ONEThe WhaleTHE BRINK OF THE SHOREFAST SEA ICE cut the water like the edge of a swimming pool. A white canvas tent, several snow-machines and big wooden sleds, and a sealskin umiaq whale boat waited like poolside furniture on the blue-white surface of the ice. Gentle puffs rippled the open water a foot or two below, except near the edge, where a fragile skin of new ice stilled the surface. Sun in the north reached from the far side of the lead, backlighting the water and picking out the imperfections in this clear, newborn ice with a contrast of yellow-orange
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  • Charles Wohlforth

  • Charles Wohlforth, who lives in Anchorage, began his writing career at a weekly newspaper in an Alaskan fishing village, and developed it freelancing travel guides and articles for The New Republic, Outside, and other magazines. His experience of climate change comes from a lifetime of traveling Alaska's wilderness and towns, where nature rubs against civilization's rim. Readers can discuss the book with him at