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How to Write About a Vanishing World

(Source: newyorker.com)

On a stormy night in 1987, an American herpetologist named Marty Crump was getting ready for bed when she heard a tapping at her door. This was in the mountains of northwest Costa Rica, where evening callers were rare. The visitor had braved the downpour to give Crump what counted, in field-biology circles, as a hot tip: the golden toads had emerged.

Golden toads had been formally described only two decades earlier, by another American herpetologist, named Jay Savage. In the paper Savage had written assigning the species its Latin name—Bufo periglenes—he noted that the toads exhibited “the most startling coloration.”

“I must confess that my initial response when I saw them was one of disbelief,” he wrote in an otherwise staid scientific tract. He wondered briefly whether someone had tricked him by dipping “the examples in enamel paint.”

Golden toads had been seen only in rugged terrain, near the crest of a mountain range known as the Cordillera de Tilarán, which forms part of the Continental Divide. They seemed to live mostly underground, surfacing only long enough to reproduce, an M.O. that made them difficult to study. The morning after the knock on her door, Crump trekked up the cordillera, through a soup of fog, mud, and drizzle. When she finally spotted the golden toads, she was so astonished that she forgot how miserable she felt. The toads, she later wrote, were “dazzling,” like jewels scattered on the forest floor.

That spring, Crump watched golden toads mate, a process that sometimes took as long as twenty-five hours. Males outnumbered females by as much as ten to one, and when a guy managed to find a single lady he would tackle her from behind. Carrying him piggyback, she would hop to the nearest puddle, while he fended off competitors. Sometimes so many males were trying to crawl on top of the same female that they formed an orange ball, studded with writhing orange limbs.

Crump returned to Costa Rica the following May to continue her research on golden-toad reproduction. By the end of July, she had spotted just one toad at the site where, the previous year, she’d seen dozens.

In 1989, Crump arrived in Costa Rica in early April. She hiked up the mountain: no toads. She made the trip again—same result. After a month, a family emergency compelled her to return home to Florida, and one of her graduate students took over. He eventually found a lone toad, a male. Crump spent 1990 on sabbatical in Argentina. A colleague monitored her research site and was to alert her if any toads appeared. None did.

By 1990, it was no secret that many populations of wild animals were in trouble. Still, Crump’s experience represented something new under the cloud cover. A biologist could now choose a species to study and watch it disappear, all within the course of a few field seasons.

Crump chronicled the loss of the golden toad in a book titled, for complicated reasons, “In Search of the Golden Frog.” (The golden frog, which is native to Panama, is only very distantly related to the golden toad. Neon yellow in color, it, too, has vanished from the rain forest.) She followed this with a second book, “Extinction in Our Times,” co-written with a colleague. Meanwhile, naturalists with similar experiences were weighing in with similarly mournful titles: “Requiem for Nature,” “Silence of the Songbirds,” “The Last Rhinos,” “Planet Without Apes.” In 2006, Samuel Turvey, a researcher with the Zoological Society of London, participated in a survey aimed at locating the last remaining Yangtze River dolphins, or baiji. Six weeks of intensive monitoring failed to turn up a single baiji. When the survey results were made public, in the journal Biology Letters, Turvey was deluged with interview requests. In one twenty-four-hour period, he spoke to more than three dozen news outlets around the globe.

“It turned out it was possible to galvanize the world’s media on behalf of the baiji,” he observes in his book “Witness to Extinction.” But only after the dolphin was gone for good: “That’s what would sell. That’s what constituted a story.”

The losses on our human-dominated planet keep coming, and so, too, do the stories. These days, it’s not just species that are vanishing. Entire features of the earth are disappearing—thus, the latest batch of “witness-to” books, written by geologists.

Peter Wadhams, the author of “A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic” (Oxford), is the head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group, at the University of Cambridge. He first visited the polar north in 1970, when, as an undergraduate, he got a job on a Canadian research vessel, the Hudson, which was attempting to circumnavigate the Americas. Although the Hudson was built for travel through sea ice, on the last leg of the journey it got stuck in the Northwest Passage and had to be rescued by an icebreaker. Evidently, Wadhams enjoyed the experience—in the stiff-upper-lip tradition of British adventurers, he’s largely mum on the topic of emotion—because he returned to northern Canada a few years later to work on his Ph.D. This involved flying over the ice cap in a sort of aeronautical jalopy—a Second World War-era DC-4 with the cockpit bubble of a Sabre fighter jet welded to the fuselage. The flights left from Gander, and Wadhams recalls a bar in town, called the Flyers’ Club, where a band played topless.

At the time, Wadhams imagined himself part of a glaciological tradition stretching back to the Napoleonic Wars. The idea was to map the extent of the Arctic sea ice and then, basically, forget about it. (Many died trying.) The ice cap’s size varied, expanding in winter, when the polar darkness descended, and then contracting in summer. But this cycle, like the seasons themselves, was supposed to be unchanging. The assumption, Wadhams writes, was that “everything in the ocean is constant.”

In the nineteen-eighties, satellites replaced scientists eyeballing the Arctic from DC-4s. The satellite data revealed that the ice was shrinking. By this point, the earliest climate models had been assembled, using I.B.M. punch cards, and they predicted that global warming would be felt first and foremost at the poles. In 1990, Wadhams compared surveys of the sea ice north of Greenland that had been conducted from British submarines, using upward-looking sonar. The comparison showed that the ice cap, in addition to contracting, was thinning; during the previous decade, its thickness had declined by fifteen per cent.

By the end of the summer of 2007, the ice cap was about half the size it had been at the start of the satellite era, and the Arctic sea ice had entered what an American scientist, Mark Serreze, has dubbed its “death spiral.” Today, a decade deeper into the spiral, older Arctic sea ice has mostly melted away. What’s left, in large part, is first-year ice, which forms over the winter and, since it’s thinner, is that much more prone to melt the following spring. The most recent climate models predict that within a few decades the Arctic Ocean will be entirely ice-free in summer. Based on his own observations, Wadhams believes that the time frame is more like the next few years. “It is clear that the summer Arctic sea ice does not have long to live,” he writes.

For his part, Serreze, who directs the National Snow and Ice Data Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder, has also written a farewell to ice. In “Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North” (Princeton), he relates that when he first started out in polar research, in the early eighties, he was taken with the idea of global cooling. “Deep down I was hoping for an ice age,” he confesses.

As the satellite and sonar images began to pile up, Serreze continued to hold out that hope. Perhaps, he theorized, the ice cap was shrinking due to a natural cycle that would eventually reverse. Years passed, the ice continued to melt, and Serreze came to favor fire. “The weight of evidence turned me,” he observes. “And then I turned hard.” He gives the perennial sea ice until 2030 or so. “That the Arctic Ocean will become free of sea ice in late summer and early autumn is a given,” he writes.

Both Wadhams and Serreze anticipate the loss will have disastrous and, as it were, snowballing consequences. Sea ice reflects sunlight, while open water absorbs it, so melting ice leads to further warming, which leads to more melt, and so on. (This past winter, parts of the Arctic saw temperatures of up to forty-five degrees above normal, even as parts of the United States and Europe were being buried under snow; some scientists believe the two phenomena are related, though others note that the link is, at this point, unproved.) Arctic soils contain hundreds of billions of tons of carbon, in the form of frozen and only partially decomposed plants. As the region heats up, much of this carbon is likely to be released into the atmosphere, where it will trap more heat—another feedback loop. In the Arctic Ocean, vast stores of methane lie buried under frozen sediments. If these stores, too, are released, the resulting warming is likely to be catastrophic. “The risk of an Arctic seabed methane pulse is one of the greatest immediate risks facing the human race,” Wadhams writes.

“This is definitely disaster movie material” is how Serreze puts it.

What’s known as a “global bleaching event” occurs when coral reefs in three oceans—the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian—exhibit signs of heat stress all at the same time. There was a global bleaching event in 1998, and a second one in 2010. In October, 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that another event was beginning. The bleaching continued through 2016, and then on through the first half of 2017. By the time it ended, in June of last year, almost a third of the shallow-water corals on the Great Barrier Reef were dead. In the northern stretches of the reef, the mortality rate was closer to three-quarters.

As it happens, shortly before NOAA’s announcement, Irus Braverman, a professor of law and geography at the University at Buffalo, set out to interview coral biologists. The earlier global bleaching events, combined with various other forms of destruction—disease, dredging, dynamite fishing—had already convinced marine scientists that reefs were in grave trouble. Still, as Braverman relates in her forthcoming book “Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink” (University of California), even the gloomiest were caught off guard by the third event. After taking an aerial survey of the Great Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s most prominent coral biologists, Terry Hughes, showed the results to his students. “And then we wept,” he tweeted.

An American scientist, Laurie Raymundo, reported on Facebook that, after observing the devastation of reefs in Tumon Bay, on Guam’s west coast, “for the first time in the fifty years I’ve been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask.”

Coral reefs are often referred to as living structures; as such, they span the divide between the faunal and the geological. Individual corals are tiny, gelatinous animals infelicitously referred to as polyps. In their cells, polyps house even tinier algae, which they rely on for food, to help fuel their extraordinary building projects. Bleaching occurs when water temperatures rise more than two degrees or so above normal. For reasons that are not entirely understood, corals react to the heat by expelling their symbionts. (Alternatively, according to some scientists, it’s the algae that respond by decamping.) If the bleaching event is short-lived, the corals can survive and, eventually, recover. But in a warming world, where such events are becoming both more frequent and more protracted, the prognosis for reefs is much the same as it is for sea ice.

A coral ecologist named Peter Sale, who’s a professor emeritus at Ontario’s University of Windsor, tells Braverman that reef scientists are confronting “the likely disappearance of the ecosystem they have been studying.” What most interests Braverman, though, is not the fate of reefs—with Sale, she takes their disappearance as likely—but the way scientists choose to “narrate” the crisis. She finds them divided into two camps. In one are those who argue that reefs’ downward spiral can be arrested only by dealing with climate change, which is to say, by completely revamping the world’s energy systems. (It’s worth pointing out that, if Wadhams and Serreze are right about Arctic feedbacks, even this may not be enough.)

“A lot of what we’re doing in terms of conservation actions is futile until we stabilize the climate,” Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the director of the Global Change Institute, at Australia’s University of Queensland, tells Braverman. Hoegh-Guldberg describes local efforts to preserve or restore reefs as “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic to get a better view.” Imitating those on the other side, he says, “Let’s just block out those horrible people, like me, who say it’s all futile. ‘Lalalalalala, can’t hear you!’ ”

In the second camp are those who argue that, yes, reefs are dying and, yes, the situation is only going to get worse, but this just makes local restoration efforts that much more urgent. Ruth Gates, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, is working on selectively breeding corals that might be able to withstand higher temperatures, an approach that’s become known as “assisted evolution.”

“The gloom and doom is paralyzing,” she tells Braverman at one point. “The scope of climate change is paralyzing.”

“I don’t know what the outcome of our project will be,” Gates says at another point. But, on some level, “we’re already successful. Because we’re sending out a more hopeful message, something we can do actively.”

Hope and its doleful twin, Hopelessness, might be thought of as the co-muses of the modern eco-narrative. Such is the world we’ve created—a world of wounds—that loss is, almost invariably, the nature writer’s subject. The question is how we relate to that loss. Is the glass ninety-five per cent empty or is it five per cent full?

The message that there’s still “something we can do actively” has a lot to be said for it. It offers a rationale for not giving up—on species, on whole ecosystems—which is also a rationale for continuing to research these subjects and, perhaps most relevant for scientists turned authors, for continuing to write about them. Narrating the disaster becomes a way to try to avert it. Wadhams ends “A Farewell to Ice” with a chapter titled “A Call to Arms.” In it, he urges readers to “adopt every possible measure that will reduce unnecessary energy use,” to lobby for better laws, and to embrace nuclear power, which, he writes, “will keep the lights on without carbon emission.”

But we seem to have reached the point where even the calls to arms are starting to sound like dirges. In the same chapter in which Wadhams argues for better energy policies, he observes that such policies probably can’t—and almost certainly won’t—be put in place fast enough to save the Arctic. Therefore, he says, technologies to block sunlight or change the reflectivity of clouds will have to be deployed. These so-called geoengineering technologies have yet to be tested—if truth be told, they’ve really yet to be invented—but without them, according to Wadhams, the “temperature rise, and the associated further feedbacks, will be too great to allow our civilization to continue.” Apparently, this is supposed to count as inspirational.

It’s hard to say what purpose would be served by a message of straight-up despair; despondency, as it’s often noted, produces its own feedback loop. And yet, scientifically speaking, what alternative is there, as we move into the future, beyond the baiji, and the golden toad, and the reefs, and the sea ice, on toward reëngineering the atmosphere? Lalalalalala, can’t hear you! ♦

More Info: newyorker.com

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