Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

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Part 1: Summary

In this book, Kolbert travels to many places to find out what is happening with global warming. Quite often she ran into the same fear at the places she went, the fear for loss before the next generation. When she went to Alaska, many people were fleeing from their homes because the sea ice surrounding them, creating a buffer zone for storms, was melting and that was causing houses to just be swept away.

A man in Iceland who has monitored glaciers predicted that by the end of the century, Iceland will be ice free. Not something you would expect from a land that has had glaciers for over two million years. On the tips of glacier in Greenland, researchers found water in places there had not been water in maybe thousands of years.

When she went to the Netherlands, she found that the rising sea level was expected to take up a large portion of the country. However, in areas where there is already periodic flood, they have already started construction on amphibious home and buoyant roads.

Other then the trips to these places she also gathers up data on the situation of global warming. The United States is the single largest country to put carbon in our atmosphere. We alone account for one quarter of the world's total. An average of 12,000 pounds of carbon is released by each American. However, the Chinese are expected to pass us up within a short period if they do not build new plants with low-emission technology. Mr. Hoffert, who is a professor in physics, believes we can overcome this global warming situation. He has many ideas to avoid carbon sources of energy; Satellites with photovoltaic arrays, solar collectors on the moon, and turbines suspended in the jet stream.

Part 2: Chapter 5


I think the most obvious factual claim would be global warming. The whole time she is looking for evidence and proof of the global warming. She talked to a man named Hansen, who "Decided that a planet whose atmosphere could change in the course of a human lifetime was more interesting then one that was going to continue, for all intents and purposes, to broil away forever."(pg 98) He was comparing Earth to Venus whose surface temperature was 876 degrees. It was believed that the temperature was so high due to a smoggy haze, but soon after that it was found out that the atmosphere was 96% carbon-dioxide.

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This is what captivated Hansen and made him first interested in the climate change in the 70s. In the summer of 1990 Hansen made a bet with fellow scientists that the following year or then next year would be the hottest on record yet but not only for land temperature, but sea and lower atmosphere as well, he won the bet in six months.(pg 99)


In this section, Kolbert talks a bit about aerosols. Aerosols create basically a reverse greenhouse effect in our atmosphere. Carbon-dioxide lets the heat from the sunlight go through the atmosphere but it also blocks the heat from escaping. What Aerosols do for us, while in the atmosphere, is they reflect the light away from our surface which helps cool us down rather then warm us up. During a time when the temperature was rapidly rising, a volcano erupted producing 20 million tons of these gases. After that, the temperature decreased by a half degree.


A good emotional part for me in this section was with Weiss and his studies on the Akkadian empire. He constructed a time line of the city and its history. "From its origins as a small farming village (around 5000 B.C.) to its growth into an independent city of some thirty thousand people (2600 B.C.), and on to its reorganization under imperial rule (2300 B.C.)"(pg 95) Later he talks about how a layer of dirt reveals that the human had abandoned it from 2200 to 1900 B.C. "Weiss sent soil samples from Tell Leilan to a lab for analysis. The results showed that…even the city's earthworms had died out"(pg 95) It is amazing how a civilization, which rose from such a small number, into a great city and was inhabited for 27 thousand years, could just all of a sudden, in a sense, be wiped away. Really tells you how a climate change can impact you and your surroundings.


The main character of this book would be the author, Korlbert herself. From what I understand, she is not an expert by any means on the subject of global warming. But what makes her book so credible is all the people she talks with and records their findings and stories. She not only just interviews all these people, but she goes to all these places and sees a lot of these things first hand. A lot of the people she talks to are esteemed professors, doctors of one kind or another or archaeologists. Plenty of these people can be considered credible since they have a lot of published work. If their work was bad and published, it would have been publicly made clear that the person was not credible and she would have known not to interview these people and use them in her book.

Warrants and Assumptions

I believe that the biggest claim in this section would be that we are causing the global warming through our pollution. The support given for that would be that we have had a steady increase in temperature since the industrial age. A warrant to support that would be that Venus's atmosphere consists of 96% carbon dioxide and the places surface temperature is nearly 900 degrees.

Another claim could be that we have the ability, with certain health risks, to cool the planet back down. The support to this would be that aerosols released into out atmosphere, reflect the light of the sun away from us. Basically a reverse greenhouse effect. The warrant would be that during a time when the temperature was rising quickly, a volcano erupted and produced 20 million tons of gases which caused the temperature to drop by half a degree.


The beginning of this chapter starts out with an ancient story of the kingdom of Akkad. It was said that a baby was found floating in a river and eventually he became a servant to the king, and after that he eventually became king of Akkad. He joined all the cities together and conquered others as well. His reign was for 56 years, and he was followed by his two sons, who were then followed by his grandson, who claimed to be a god. In a sudden strike, the entire kingdom just collapsed. It was known as The Curse of Akkad. "For the first time since cities were built and founded, the great agricultural tracts produced no grain, the inundated tracts produced no fish, the irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine, the gathered clouds did no rain, the masgurum did not grow."(pg 93) This happened during a three year period. I believe this is probably the first "documented" major climate change/disaster. Because of that, it is why I think she put this in her book. I don't believe it was global warming or anything like that that would have caused this. But then again, I don't think this has to be all just about global warming, major climate changes are a big part as well.

Argument Structure

This section begins with the story of the kingdom of Akkad, how it rose, became big and then its downfall due to climate change. It was a good story and then a good transition in the archaeologist perspective of climate change. It shows how you can analyze the climate of a place thousands of years ago. Then with these big time transitions, it talks about the new way of determining climate and changes for past, present and future through the GISS system. Very interesting how it looks at the world as a lot of checkerboards on top of each other, or a three dimensional checkerboard. GISS is basically a climate model that can show us the climate in whatever "section" it analyzes. After all this she has another nice transition into talking to the people who are climate scientists. Some work at GISS, some work near there. After that it's a lot of esteemed peoples work and lectures she talks about. Letting us know what they have found and what they believe has and will happen.

Part 3: Response

I think the success of this book is quite good. It was a very thorough book with plenty of information. She did a good job in talking not just about present, but also including the past and realistic futures. The fact that she actually went to all these places, and experienced everything first hand and saw many things with her own eyes is great. She didn't just call people and interview them, or talk about their work, she actually went and visited them and studied their work.

Her argument was very persuasive I think. I had no idea things were THIS bad with the global warming. Sure I knew the basics, such as the ice is melting in the artic and what not, but I had no idea people's homes and lives were being ruined. "…a hole that had opened in a patch of permafrost not far from his house. It was about six feet wide and five feet deep. Nearby were the outlines of other, even bigger holes…whish had been filled with gravel…"(pg 15) It is really an eye opener to know peoples homes are being destroyed because of global warming. Based on this information you can really have a sense of how devastating all of this is and how quickly it is coming upon us.
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