Poetry Madness

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to PowellsBooks.news
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores

Customer Comments

mgarceau has commented on (1) product.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Field Notes from a Catastrophe

mgarceau, May 15, 2009

The scope of this book is grand; Kolbert has deliberately written a book with a credibly large perspective. Instead of simply focusing on the climate aspect of global warming, she recounts the historic development of global climate change, and even taps into the implications of human polity. While this latter subject may raise contention in some of the book’s readers, she makes some poignant remarks about the importance of environmental regulations and societal change if we are to preserve our planet and offset an impending ‘catastrophe.’ In her assessment of the current human offset-effort, Kolbert is undoubtedly grim; from her last page she writes, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

The book gives a chronological timeline of the theory of climate change since (roughly) the industrial revolution; but rather than focusing on current or more modern discoveries, she credits some of oldest theorists and proponents of global warming. John Tyndall, 1850 or so, and his discovery of the ‘greenhouse’ effect, along with other classic scientists, Stefan Boltzmann, Charles David Keeling, and Svante Arrhenius are given mention. By briefing the reader with history, Kolbert lends the current debate of global warming some gravitas and credibility -- this is not a new theory or a fabrication fueled by the whims of political interests -- it is a real phenomenon that has been in progress for over a hundred years! Although, when Kolbert switches focus to more recent climate-modeling and “carbon stabilization modeling” for global climate change, the data presented gets complicated and overwhelming for the not so scientifically inclined (me). Fortunately, there aren‘t copious amounts of it; and even so, the data is necessary to substantiate the claims on climate change. The affects of climate change on the planet are significant, and while it would be impossible to note every change occurring, her examples are varied enough to demonstrate the broad-impact that global climate change is having on the planet, from living to the nonliving.

Kolbert collects data from Alaska, Greenland, England, the Netherlands, Vermont and Costa Rica, among other places. From each field-study conducted, the general message is hammered: climate change is destabilizing eco-systems. In Costa Rica, for instance, the golden toad, which lived in the higher-altitude areas of the region, may now be extinct; her anecdote suggests that high altitude inhabitants, much like polar-region inhabitants, are being adversely affected by climate change. Migration patterns may also be changing, robins appearing on Bank Island, located 500 miles north of the Arctic circle, have started appearing; and the Comma C butterfly’s range of expansion has increased 50miles/decade. Additionally, Kolbert notes how rising world temperatures has caused world glaciers and ice-sheets to recede, resulting in higher-than-normal sea levels; these changes have already started to affect coastal regions. In the Netherlands, for instance, people are no longer trying to remove water via drainage and water pumping, but are now seeking flexible, engineering alternatives; homes are being built to be buoyant. In Alaska, the Inupiat people, who once used snow-mobiles over the ice-sheets for hunting now trek the region via boats, because the water no longer freezes solidly; furthermore, those living on the Island of Shismaref have had to completely relocate to the mainland, because the sea-ice was not solidifying as it once did, making the island more vulnerable to storm surges. These examples, along with countless others, give the book its credibility, but also sheer scope and impact of climate change. For someone who may not be aware of all the studies and changes unfolding around us, Kolbert does an excellent job of illustrating the importance of climate change.

Even though her book is, in many ways, a watershed for undertones of bleak circumstance that our planet endures, she does supply some hope for our current plight; in Burlington, Vermont, for instance, the people are passionate for change; they want to reduce their CO2 footprint and have made various efforts to reduce their reliance on coal.

Overall, this was a worthwhile read; Kolbert has written a nuanced and insightful book that is, in general, written for common audiences. While there are moments of complexity, these are merely supplemental sections that can be quickly digested. Additionally, her book definitely has a political angle; while deliberating politics is not the central ‘focus’ of the book, the inclusion of political opinion may upset some, especially those in favor of the Bush Administration, of which she is hyper-critical.

A solid read. Deserving an 8 out of 10.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No
(11 of 20 readers found this comment helpful)

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.