THE BIG THAW: ANCIENT CARBON, MODERN SCIENCE, AND A RACE TO SAVE THE WORLD
A Review by Orlay Johnson
Photography by Chris Linder
Cost: $35, but 100% of royalties support Woodwell Climate Research Center (formerly Woods Hole Research Center)
Published: Sep 25, 2019 by Braided River
- 2020 Washington State Book Award Winner in General Nonfiction
- 2020 Gold Independent Publisher Book Award in Environment & Ecology
- 2019 Nautilus Grand Award Winner and Gold Winner in the Ecology and Environment
- 2019 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards Honorable Mention in Ecology and Environment
TL;DR (Short Review for those who don’t want to read the whole review.)
Thumbs up. I recommend this book unreservedly—it is well written, easy to read, full of magnificent full-color photographs and tells an uplifting story about students working in eastern Siberia and the Yukon-Kuskokwim area of Alaska. The book is an antidote to the depression and helplessness many of us feel in the face of climate change. It has a “you are there” feel as we follow students designing their own research and then implementing them in the frozen reaches of the Arctic. Also, the main author, Eric Scigliano, worked as a writer for WA Sea Grant on the University of WA campus. Biggest complaint is the lack of an Index.
Full Review by Orlay Johnson, NAME Communications Committee Chair
While Eric Scigliano, a well-known climate writer, is the lead author of this book, there are three other writers, plus a banker who wrote the epilogue, so I expected a fancy coffee table book with pretty pictures of endangered animals, little science, and probably a doom and gloom scenario delineating a catastrophic irreversible climate disaster. Instead, I found it to be the opposite. The Big Thaw does not pull its punches, but it certainly isn’t bleak. The book tells the uplifting story of students, along with researchers and local people in Siberia and Alaska, working together to implement research that can help us understand the impacts of climate change, and what we can do about it. The students, under the auspices of something called the Polaris Project, are doing serious research that they developed. Specifically, the program focuses on studies of the vast quantities of ancient carbon locked-up in Arctic permafrost, investigating its fate as the earth warms. Will it remain in the ground as it has for thousands of years, or will the carbon be released to the atmosphere as permafrost thaws, fueling additional warming
The photography by Chris Linder is a huge part of why this book is such a pleasure to read. Chris has documented more than 50 expeditions from the Congo to Siberia and spent over two years of his life photographing impacts of climate change on polar regions. He has been involved with the Polaris Project from the first field work in 2008. His photos capture the students in action as well as the expansive beauty of the Siberian taiga and later the Yukon-Kuskokwim River delta. He also documents climate impacts such as the “drunken forests” where permafrost is melting, trees are leaning every-which-way, and methane is bubbling up dangerously into the atmosphere.
So, what is the Polaris Project? It is a student engagement field program began in 2008 under the direction of Drs. R. Max Holmes, John Schade (education director) and Sue Natali with the Woodwell Climate Research Center at Woods Hole in MA. Initially the objective was for the college students on their home campuses to develop their own field research projects on the impacts of thawing permafrost and then to provide them the opportunity to implement those studies on the ground in the Russian Arctic.
Over the summer, they would conduct their research out of the Russia Academy of Sciences’ Northeast Science Station (NSS). The station was founded in 2006 by Dr. Sergey Zimov in the city of Chersky in subarctic of eastern Siberia, specifically to study climate change in polar regions. Chersky is also home to Pleistocene Park a very large protected area specifically designed for research into global warming, Pleistocene ecology, and permafrost.
The book’s descriptions of the difficulties encountered in the first years of the program may be the most moving and inspirational part of the book. Stories by the students and descriptions of the research efforts are hard to believe without the photos that accompany the text. Imagine a group of undergrad students from all over the United States flying thousands of miles, some on ancient Russian planes and helicopters, into Siberia and then hiking across melting permafrost to conduct research in mosquito and bear infested swamps and “drunken” forests. But they did, and the station was a Godsend as it provided a subarctic environment dedicated to research, a lab with equipment to conduct planned research, as well as safe sleeping quarters, hot food, and best, hot showers. It also provided an indoor haven from the hordes of mosquitoes ubiquitous in the Arctic. One of the most horrific and humorous parts of the book is Chris Linder’s description of how relentless Arctic mosquitoes can be to a photographer—regardless of anti-bug gear or spray.
The cooperation of local Siberian townspeople is also amazing. To me, a highpoint of the book is the inspirational story of Anya Suslova, a young teen and daughter of the research ship’s captain. She helps the researchers collect water samples when they first scope out the area and she then continued the collections after the researchers leave. The work she did and a gift subscription to the English version of National Geographic from Max Holmes inspired her to learn English and continue to work with the Project. Inspired by her experiences with the Project scientists, she attends college at Uakutsk State University in Russia and then earns a Master’s Degree at TERI School of Advanced Studies in India. She now works as a laboratory technician at Woods Hole Marine Labs working on climate change research.
The program ran at the Russian NSS site from 2008-2015, at which point funding constraints by US funding agencies for field work in Russia during the Ukraine War moved the research focus to the Yukon/Kuskowim Delta in Alaska. A bit easier to get to and work in (it is further south), but the laboratory and indoor living facilities at NSS gave way to camping and bear fences—although the tents look pretty comfortable and the views shown in Chris Linder’s photos are again spectacular.
In many ways, the Polaris Project is similar to the University of Washington’s summer study at their camps in the Wood River System of Bristol Bay (including the mosquitoes). That program focuses on inspiring UW students while they study changes in salmon populations in one of the most productive—but climate change threatened—river systems in the world. A system that is now further endangered by a proposed huge mining project.
The Polaris Project is a bit more ambitious however, in that it “tackles one of humanity’s greatest challenges—global climate change—in one of Earth’s most remote and vulnerable environments: The Arctic.”
What makes the book so readable is not just the science or the beauty of the Arctic. It is the voices of the students engaged in their research, their enthusiasm, and the first-hand knowledge they will bring back to their home schools. To them, the warming in the Arctic is no longer theoretical, but in-your-face reality.
We are all living through a pandemic that most of us never expected or imagined, but The Big Thaw tells the story of something far worse, something that threatens not just humans but all life on our planet. However, like the COVID pandemic, initially some have chosen to ignore its chilling dangers—we just hope it goes away, like magic, maybe by next month…
This book shows us that is a very bad idea. However, rather than simply being a dark and dreary manifesto for disaster, it gives us numerous pathways that we can work to blunt this disaster. But it goes well beyond that and in a warm and engrossing way introduces the reader to the Project’s students and leaders who are fighting on the front lines to change the warming trajectory presently occurring.
The faculty and researchers who founded and lead the program are an incredibly dedicated group as the conditions, funding, and transportation must be a nightmare. But this book is about the students whose studies and photos are the backbone of the book.
The stories about the students are honestly fascinating. One example is the story of Claire Griffin, profiled on page 49. She joined the Polaris Project in summer 2009 as an undergrad and returned as a grad student in 2013 with research to measure nutrients and the amount of food available to microbes at various depths in floodplain and thermokarst lakes. They processed the water samples in the field and in the laboratory to measure the temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pH.
She writes that, as in most science projects, the work “involved a lot of processing and boring atmospheric corrections,” but she persevered in part due to inspiration from a quote by a Polaris leader John Schade: “Every tope of science involves some type of tedium. Find the tedium you can tolerate or even enjoy and do that”—something maybe we can all appreciate.
And she did persevere—she recently earned her Ph.D. at the University of Texas and her post-doc involves studying water quality in lakes of the northern Mid-West.
If you want to learn more about the work described in the book, the history of the Polaris Project is well documented on web with photos of each year’s activities from 2008 to the present that can be found in the news section of their website.
Last and maybe least—the book lacks an index and with this many students, researchers, locals, and other names, it would be very helpful to be able to refer to an index and find where different people or research projects are discussed in the book.
About the Team
Photographer—Chris Linder is an award-winning professional photographer. Originally from SW Wisconsin, he earned an undergraduate degree in oceanography from the US Naval Academy and a master’s degree from the MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. After working as a naval officer and an oceanographic researcher, he transitioned to visual storytelling. Since 2002, he has photographed more than 50 scientific expeditions and has spent over two years of his life exploring the polar regions. For more info on the photography check out Chris Linder’s “Field Notes from an Arctic Climate Photographer.”
Lead Author—Eric Scigliano, lead author is from Seattle and has a longtime interest in climate change, the Arctic, and the alarming intersection between the two. He has been the science writer for Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington and is the coauthor, with Curtis Ebbesmeyer of Flotsametrics and the Floating World. He has also written Michelangelo’s Mountain and Seeing the Elephant: The Ties That Bind Elephants and Humans. His work has won Livingston and AAAS awards and has been included in Best American Science Writing.
Dr. Robert Max Holmes a founder of the Polaris Project, he is deputy director and senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. He lives in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He earned his BS in Biology from U of Texas, Austin and his Ph.D. in Biogeochemistry at Arizona State.
Dr. Susan Natali a founder of the Polaris Project, she is an associate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. In 1991, Natali graduated from Villanova University, where she received a B.S. in biology, and in 2008 she completed her Ph.D. in ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. She lives in Falmouth, Mass. She is now director of the Polaris Project.
John Schade is a distinguished visiting scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center and the Education Coordinator for the Polaris Project. He currently lives in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. Learn more at thepolarisproject.org.
Theodore Roosevelt IV is a managing director of investment banking at Barclays in New York City. He is Chairman of their Clean Tech Initiative. He is also board chair of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) a trustee of the Climate Reality Projects, and member of the board of the Wilderness Society as well as a trustee of the AMNH American Museum of National History in NYC.