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.


Praise for The Whale and the Supercomputer

"Never has the complicated science of climate change been presented so clearly."—Ian Garrick Mason, San Francisco Chronicle

"The Whale and the Supercomputer skillfully melds two very different worlds: the whaling culture of northern Alaska's Iñupiaq, and the at-times equally mysterious culture and methods of the scientific community. Along the way, he delivers many salient points about real-world impacts of global warming, which is clobbering northern latitudes first and hardest."—Robert Krier, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"An insider's view of two subcultures . . . Wohlforth's back-and-forth narrative illuminates the tension between traditional and scientific knowledge, and provokes questions about which is more reliable—and if one can or should do without the other."—Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times

"Wohlforth leaves it to others to 'parry and thrust' with opposing theories about causes; in brawny profiles of far-flung researches, native whalers, and other way-up-northerners he details the way humans are themselves changing in the face of a mutating planet, the adventure of surviving and thriving as human organism who must adapt to a new natural world.'"—Men's Journal

"The Whale and the Supercomputer deserves a place on the shelf with the best of contemporary environmental writing by the likes of John McPhee, David Quammen, and Bernd Heinrich. Wohlforth makes the characters and personalities of the people he writes about come alive, and he makes the study of climatology understandable without detracting from its daunting complexity."—Ted Knight, Magill Book Reviews

"The ancient heart of arctic Alaska beats loudly in The Whale and the Supercomputer. Charles Wohlforth writes passionate advocacy in brilliant prose, very much in the tradition of Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez, that is, inimitably. The Iñupiaq Eskimo's vigilant concerns, ideas, know-how—side by side with modern science's approach to the profound effects of climate change—are brought to readers with unalloyed power to disturb and enchant in equal measure. Mr. Wohlforth is an indispensable environmental journalist."—Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and My Famous Evening

"Wohlforth has sent us a fascinating dispatch from the front lines of global warming. With this satisfying blend of adventure and philosophy, he paints a rich and often surprising picture of life at the edge of the world. And, by showing us two cultures struggling to grasp the epic changes upon them, he tackles fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge itself, and the purpose of seeking it."—Barbara Freese, author of Coal: A Human History

"A journalist and native Alaskan comes to grips with the impact of climate change in an Arctic region where science predicted it would first show its hand. Wohlforth delves into the two disparate cultures most affected by the steady warming that he asserts 'everybody in Alaska knows is a fact.' While the Iñupiaq Eskimos embark on increasingly perilous whale hunts, scientific researchers struggle against the elements in order to amass data that might unlock a view of the future. The author, a sometime outdoor trekker, is at his descriptive best when accompanying native hunters out onto sea ice in search of the migrating Bowhead whales that support their subsistence tradition. Wind, wave, and mysterious puddles of brine can conspire to cause sudden fractures, sending hunters scurrying frantically for shore (often tens of miles away), towing sledges, boats, and massive amounts of butchered whale meat with their snowmobiles. As warmed air generates fog—now more than ever an added threat—any wrong turn can lead to a watery death, or a lonely one on a shrinking floe far at sea where the likeliest companion is a hungry polar bear. Wohlforth's prime inquiry: What can these imperiled people, who have intimately studied climate for generations, share with formal science to help answer the big questions? First, you have to get scientists to listen, the author explains, and that can be a tough job if they would rather be out collecting core samples from snowbanks or sea ice in wintertime. One anecdotal gem involves an Iñupiaq known for uncannily accurate weather predictions who is initially thought by scientists to use some form of meditation; they later find out that he unerringly takes to his tent to hear the morning forecast from KBAR radio . . . Wohlforth offers a revealing look at climate change where it counts."—Kirkus Reviews

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The Whale and the Supercomputer

The Whale
THE 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,...

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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