What the Wasteland Saw: A Tail of Resilience

FOTO5

Researchers scour the core of the Atacama, a region known as “absolute desert.”
(Photos courtesy of Claudio Latorre)

Life is scarce here in the heart of the Atacama Desert. Nothing grows. Rain calls twice a century, and never leaves a message. This is one of the world’s most desiccated landscapes, a 600-mile strip along Chile’s western coast that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. And, oh yeah: It’s been this way for about 150 million years.

If you were an early colonizer of the Americas, making your way down from the Bering Land Strait during the Last Ice Age, the Atacama would have loomed before you as a stretch of pure wasteland. No food, no shade, no water: this would be the place to avoid. You’d be better off traveling down the coast, or even braving the highlands of the cooler Altiplano to the east. That’s why, when archaeologists go out looking for early human settlements, they tend to write off this barren deathtrap. Harsh and inhospitable, they say, the Atacama was a barrier to life.

But was it? Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

The Story of the Constant, Changing Forest

Olivetree_1500yrs

An olive tree from Ithaca, Odysseus’s home

If you’re a writer looking for a good symbol, consider the tree. The author of Genesis did, twice: he placed the tree of life and the tree of knowledge front and center in the Garden of Eden. Homer did, too: When his hero Odysseus returned home after twenty years of war and travel, needing to prove his identity to his skeptical wife, Penelope, he used a tree. “Move our bed into the hallway,” Penelope told her servant, laying a trap. (I’m paraphrasing here.) “It can’t be done,” Odysseus protested. “I carved a post of that bed from a living olive tree.” Only then did Penelope believe the strange man was really her husband, as steady as that post.

Trees have long impressed us with their steadfastness; in fact, some trees from Biblical times are still with us today. But a new story I read recently casts trees in a different role. I first came across a version of this story in a paper published in the journal BioScience in 2007. The authors looked at where trees live using a tool known as a “climate envelope,” which is a line drawn on a map around the entire range where a given species is able to survive. The scientists compared climate envelopes for 130 trees under 2007 conditions to those predicted for the end of the century, using the same computer models that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bases its forecasts on. On average, they found that trees’ envelopes moved 700 kilometers north, nearly the distance from Memphis to Chicago.

So does that mean our trees will be moving north as things get warmer? Traveling trees can make great stories: Shakespeare’s Macbeth was vanquished when Birnam Wood moved a few miles to his fortress at Dunsinane Hill. And it would be dramatic indeed if future northern woodsmen and women hunt deer among sprawling live oaks and big-leaf magnolias instead of spruce and pine trees. But the scientists who wrote the BioScience paper noted that actual trees are unlikely to track their climate envelopes’ northward migration in the coming years, at least if unassisted by humans. Trees can “move” up to a few miles in a generation, by setting their seeds aloft in the wind or encasing them in a shell so they can survive a trip in the gut of an animal. But tree generations are long, and most seeds land close to home. Sugar maples, for example, lead a chaste adolescence, and don’t start making seeds until the age of 22 or so. They then send out seeds attached to little helicopters, which spin and float at most the length of a football field before touching down. Scientists estimate trees’ maximum migration rate to be around 50 kilometers per century, with many traveling far slower—a tortoise’s pace in this race.

Read the rest of this entry »


Sandy’s Effects on NYC Predicted by Two Recent Studies

E. B. White wrote, “It is a miracle that New York works at all. By rights New York should have destroyed itself long ago, from panic or fire or rioting or failure of some vital supply line in its circulatory system.” On Monday, Hurricane Sandy managed to cut off many of New York’s supply lines in ways they’ve never been tested before. The city lost power, water, and lives. But it was not only White’s fears, but also the predictions of scientists that were realized. Two separate papers, published earlier this year and last, predicted what would happen to New York City if it were struck by a severe storm.

In 2011, a state agency assembled a massive report on climate change in New York. In it, Klaus H. Jacob, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, conducted a case study (PDF) on the impact of a 100-year flood on New York City’s transportation system. A 100-year flood is a flood whose severity, on average, is seen only once every hundred years (or has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year), which the study equates with a category 1 to 2 hurricane. Jacob looked at three scenarios: a 100-year flood alone, one combined with a 2-foot sea level rise, and another with a 4-foot sea level rise as a result of climate change.

Virtually all the subway lines in lower Manhattan and the tunnels under the East River would be flooded under the worst-case scenario, which indeed closely mimicked reality. (Jacob, 2011)

Jacob identified the areas that would be flooded under each scenario. Using a base flood elevation map of the city as well as known elevations of transportation structures, he found that low-lying streets, subways, and tunnels in the Battery, Jamaica Bay, the Rockaways and other neighborhoods near the city’s shoreline would be particularly vulnerable to flooding. Indeed, those areas were among those that suffered most from Hurricane Sandy. In fact, a record 14 feet, or 4.25 meters, of water swept over the Battery on Monday, matching the case study’s worst-case scenario. Jacob also predicted that the total economic and physical damages for NYC would be $58 billion, $70 billion, and $84 billion in order of worsening scenario. One current estimate stands at $20 billion in losses for the entire Northeast and Mid-Atlantic due to Sandy, so Jacob’s estimates seem to have overshot it. One thing is for sure though. Investing in infrastructure that protect the city from future storms can save money in the long run. As Jacob told New York Magazine, “For every dollar that you spend today, you probably save $4 of not incurred costs later.”

Just months after Jacob’s case study, Ning Lin, a climate scientist at MIT, and colleagues used computer models to predict the impact of a hurricane on New York City. Published in Nature Climate Change in February this year, the study used four climate models to simulate 10,000 synthetic storms, half under the current climate and half under projected warming conditions. The researchers programmed the storm to be within a 200-km radius from the Battery and to gust at wind speeds greater than 20 m/s, or 45 mph (Hurricane Sandy exceeded the models, with 60 mph recorded at Central Park). They found that in the worst-case scenarios, a hurricane would cause a storm surge as high as 4.57 m to 4.75 m at the Battery, which came fairly close to the 4.25 m caused by Sandy.

Two worst-case scenarios estimate surge height at the Battery to range from 4.75 m (left) to 4.57 m (right), coming fairly close to the 4.25 m record surge caused by Hurricane Sandy. (Lin, et al. 2012)

The researchers also found that climate change will only increase the risk of storm surges for the city. Based on historical data on NY-region storms, they predicted that a 1 m rise in sea level in the future will increase the likelihood of a 100-year surge flood occurring as frequently as every 3-20 years and a 500-year flood every 25-240 years by the end of the century. Of course, predicting something as unpredictable as a hurricane is extremely difficult. But the fact that the climate models closely mirrored Hurricane Sandy makes the need to prepare for future severe weather all the more urgent.


How To Win an Argument with a Climate Skeptic

Climate science is an extremely complicated discipline. Climate change skeptics and deniers, I believe, thrive on this complexity. They highlight what is not known or not agreed upon to suggest that the discipline as a whole is flawed. The best way to combat such an argument is with simplicity.

In that light, I present a simple, four-point argument demonstrating the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

Carbon Dioxide Causes Warming

The central mechanism driving anthropogenic climate change is the combustion of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, the chemicals we use to heat our houses and move our cars, are compounds formed when ancient organic material, predominantly the remains of algae, is buried and cooked at a high temperature and pressure for millions of years. The result is a set of carbon-based chemicals that release a lot of energy, and form carbon dioxide (CO2), when burned.

Svante Arrhenius

This CO2, when released into the atmosphere, traps heat by blocking the escape of Earth’s radiation into space. (Anything that has a temperature, Earth included, produces radiation.) Known as the greenhouse effect, this is not a new or controversial idea. In 1861, John Tyndall, a British professor of natural philosophy, gave a lecture titled “On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours, and on the Physical Connexion of Radiation Absorption and Conduction.” Tyndall demonstrated conclusively that CO2, among other gasses, absorbs long wave radiation – the same type that Earth emits to space.  His experiment was simple. Tyndall produced radiation with a bunson burner, knowing that the heat would emit a full spectrum of wavelengths, including long-wave radiation. He then measured those wavelengths after passing them through different gasses. Because not all wavelengths traveled through the CO2, Tyndall concluded that the CO2 must be absorbing some of the heat. This simple experiment has huge implications for our planet.

John Tyndall

Tyndall’s work greatly influenced a Swedish physicist named Svante Arrhenius. In 1896, Arrhenius published a paper titled “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” (Carbonic acid was what carbon dioxide was called at the time.) Arrhenius, in essence, took Tyndall’s work out of the lab and applied the concept to the real world. Instead of a bunson burner, he used observations of infrared radiation from the moon. Because he knew that the moon, without an atmosphere, should transmit all of its long wave radiation to Earth, he was able to calculate the effect our atmosphere had on it by documenting which wavelengths didn’t make it. For each lunar observation, he compared that data with atmospheric conditions (humidity and CO2 levels) to see what effect they had on the radiation that made it to Earth. By doing this he determined that with a rise in CO2 came a “nearly arithmetic” rise in temperature. Using his calculations he determined that a doubling of atmospheric CO2would result in a 5ºC temperature rise. Even with the advent of massive computer models and high-tech lab equipment, this value is still in agreement with modern climate science.

Both Tyndall and Arrhenius speculated that CO2 has played a role in controlling the Ice Ages.  Arrhenius, back in 1896, even predicted that human fossil fuel use might result in future global warming.

Carbon Dioxide Concentrations in the Atmosphere are Increasing

This is the easiest point to make. Scientists can measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It is increasing.

The best evidence is the famous “Keeling Curve.” In 1958, Charles Keeling, a professor of oceanography at Caltech, began making continuous measurements of CO2 on the peak of the big Island of Hawaii. Because this station is far away from major urban centers, and because the station is at a high altitude, the location is perfect for making CO2 measurements that are representative of the whole atmosphere.  His measurements, which continue to this day, show a progressive rise in CO2from around 315 parts per million in 1958 to about 394 ppm as of September 2012.

The Keeling Curve

The Increased Carbon Dioxide is Coming from Human Activity

This is the heart of the controversy, but this is just as easy to demonstrate as the previous two points. The CO2 that is associated with the recent increase has a chemical signature that unequivocally ties it to human activity.

CO2 can come from a variety of sources. CO2 in the ocean is constantly exchanged with CO2 in the atmosphere; there is CO2 in the mantle, which can be released through volcanoes, and wildfires can release CO2 the same way that burning fossil fuels does. By looking at the carbon contained in CO2, scientist can distinguish between each of these sources.

Fossil fuels come from the cooked remains of ancient life. Therefore, the carbon in this CO2 must be derived from the remains of living things that existed a very long time ago. Both the age and the source of carbon can be inferred using chemical entities known as isotopes.

Elements like carbon can have differing masses, caused by changes in the number of neutrons in the atom. These are called isotopes, and each isotope acts a bit differently. When a plant takes in CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, it prefers carbon with a mass of 12 to carbon with a mass of 13. Therefore, anything that photosynthesizes, or anything that eats something produced by photosynthesis (essentially all life on this planet), is composed of less carbon-13 than is typically found in the atmosphere. This is the signature of carbon that comes from living things. Life, both alive and transformed into fossil fuels, represents a massive reservoir of carbon-12. If this kind of carbon were released into the atmosphere, the concentration of carbon-13 in the atmosphere would be reduced by dilution with carbon-12.

An oil refinery in Scotland

Carbon can also have an isotope with a mass of 14. This type of carbon is created in the atmosphere continuously. Because of this, there is a constant source of carbon-14 on the surface of Earth. Unlike carbon-13, carbon-14 is radioactive. This means that it cannot remain carbon-14 forever. It slowly decays away at a known rate. This property allows scientists to use carbon-14 to date once living things, but anything past approximately 60,000 years, cannot be dated since it will have virtually no carbon-14 left. A complete lack of carbon-14 is the signature ancient carbon. If enough of it is released to the atmosphere, it will decrease the relative concentration of carbon-14 in the atmosphere by diluting it with carbon-14 free CO2.

The combustion of fossil fuels, then, should reduce the concentration of both carbon-13 and carbon-14 in the atmosphere.

Both are happening. They are known collectively as the Suess effect.  The concentration of carbon-14 and carbon-13 in the atmosphere is declining, and it is declining at the same time that CO2 is increasing. This means that the CO2 increase we are seeing must come from ancient, organic carbon.

No other source of CO2 could have this signature. Wildfires can’t because the carbon being burned is young; it has plenty of carbon-14. Carbon from the ocean has the same problem – too young, too much carbon-14. CO2 from volcanoes does not work either. This carbon does not come from once living matter, so it has plenty of carbon-13.

Carbon derived from the remains of ancient life buried deep inside our Earth is the only plausible source. The only way to release a great deal of it at once is to dig it up and burn it, as humans are doing today.

Average Global Temperatures Are Rising

Just like CO2 concentrations, scientists are able to measure air temperature – in fact the technology has been around for quite a while. The real challenge is getting past the variability, which is the result of things like el Nino and other short term weather patterns, to figure out what the long-term temperature trend is globally. There are plenty of studies showing that the trend is overall warming, but I will highlight a study by Richard Muller.

Richard Muller was an outspoken climate change skeptic, and the Koch brothers, prominent right-wing political figures who deny climate change, funded his research. He gathered as much data as possible and corrected for all known biases – the fact that temperatures are generally higher in cities, for example – and plotted average temperature since 1750. They are rising – a full degree since 1900. A degree may not sound like much, but a rise of 2 degrees would result in ~3 meters of sea level rise, according to a collection of recent estimates. Most of New York City would be underwater.

Richard Muller’s study of global temperature change. This shows annual temperatures from 1750 to the present. (www.berkeleyearth.org)

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can warm our planet. This has been taken as fact for well over a century – well before any widespread scientific conspiracy would have been hatched. Carbon dioxide is increasing  – it’s real hard to argue with measurements.  The increase in carbon dioxide is changing the chemical composition in the atmosphere in a way only fossil fuels are able to. Also, the planet is warming.

Pretty straightforward.


The Revolution Will Be Clumpy

Geologists are able to tell you the exact history of the waxing and waning of glaciers over the past five million years because microscopic creatures in the ocean have been unwittingly recording this dance in their shells. Their shells are made from the carbon and oxygen found in seawater. As glaciers form, seawater is removed from the ocean and trapped on land, resulting in subtle changes in the chemistry of the ocean. These changes are recorded in the shells, which create a detailed history as they pile up on the ocean floor.

The microscopic shell of a foraminifera. Shells from these creatures are commonly used in isotopic studies of past climate.

For decades paleoclimatologists have used the records of seashells to reconstruct either the volume of glacial ice trapped on land or the temperature history of the ocean, providing a beautifully detailed picture of climate over the past 5 million years. These approaches, however, are limited by the fact that the scientist must know the exact chemistry of the water that the shells were formed in to calculate temperature, or the exact temperature at which they formed to calculate the chemistry of the water. This fact has confounded hundreds of studies about the history of our planet. A revolutionary new method has solved that problem. It also has its sights set on topics as diverse as the biology of dinosaurs and the evolution of man.

These methods work because some molecules of the same element have different masses. These variants are known as isotopes. Many of these isotopes are unstable, meaning they break down into other elements while releasing harmful radiation. Just as important to geologists, though, are the stable ones – atoms that exist for eternity with a fixed number of protons and neutrons. Carbon has two stable isotopes, one with an atomic mass of 12, and one with an atomic mass of 13. Similarly, oxygen as three: masses 16, 17, and 18. In both cases the light isotopes are common, while the heavier ones are exceedingly rare.

Because of these variations in mass, nature treats the heavy isotopes slightly differently than the light ones. When the shells of ocean creatures are formed, they form with a fixed ratio of heavier and lighter isotopes, leaving hints about environmental conditions at that time. These ratios are trapped in carbonate, a molecule that contains one carbon and three oxygen atoms and is the primary building block of seashells (among many other things).

Relative changes in the temperature of the ocean at the time the shell formed can be calculated using these ratios. This is because at colder temperatures oxygen 18 and oxygen 16 behave more similarly than at warm temperatures, when increased energy makes oxygen 16 more likely to react and form carbonate than oxygen 18. Shells that form under colder temperatures, then, will have more oxygen 18 than at warm temperatures.

A record of climate for the past 540 million years derived from the ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in marine fossils. Absolute temperature values cannot be derived using this method.

Information like this is critical if we wish to understand how our climate system operates, and what changes humanity will face as our planet continues to warm. But actual temperature values (i.e. degrees Celsius) would be even more useful.

Using oxygen isotope ratios to calculate absolute temperature is problematic, though. This ratio is also affected by the amount of oxygen 18 and oxygen 16 in the water to begin with. Ice prefers to form from oxygen 16. Therefore as more ice is trapped on land, more oxygen 16 is stripped from the ocean water. This results in oceans with more oxygen 18 in glacial times. This is the principle that is employed when scientists study shells to reconstruct the history of ice ages, but it means that more than one process can affect the oxygen isotope ratio in shells.

Because fluctuations in this ratio can be driven by both temperature and the original isotopic composition of the seawater, a researcher could not simply take, for example, a 65 million year old seashell and tell you the temperature of the water was when it formed. Absolute temperature values are almost impossible to calculate from oxygen isotopes in older carbonate samples.

That was before 2006, before the term ‘clumped-isotope’ entered the geologic lexicon and revolutionized the use of isotopes to study temperature. Using a new method known as ‘clumped-isotope paleothermometry,’ a researcher could indeed pick up a 65 million year old seashell and tell you the temperature in which it was formed without knowing anything else about it.

While the technique represents a complex and technical scientific achievement, the premise behind the method is fairly straightforward. When a carbonate molecule forms with more than one heavy isotope, the bond holding that molecule together is stronger than if it formed with only the common light isotopes. Before a carbonate mineral is formed and locked in place as a bone, shell, or rock, the carbon and oxygen atoms dance around, repeatedly switching partners. Because of this dance, you might expect a random distribution of light isotope to light isotope bonds (i.e. carbon 12 bonded to oxygen 16) and heavy-to-heavy bonds (i.e carbon 13 to oxygen 18).

The beauty lies in the fact that this is not the case. Because heavy-to-heavy bonds are stronger, they last just a little bit longer than the other arrangements. This is especially true in cold conditions, when there is less energy to break bonds to begin with. The higher the temperature in this sea of isotopes, the more chaotic the dance becomes. With more chaos, the ability for heavy-to-heavy bonds to remain together is reduced, and eventually removed, yielding the random distribution of bonds one might expect. The result is simple: carbonate formed in cool conditions will have more molecules with more than one heavy isotope, whereas carbonate formed in warm conditions will have fewer.

The process by which heavy isotopes join together is referred to as ‘clumping,’ and with the advent of new and highly sophisticated laboratory equipment, scientists can measure the degree to which it has occurred in carbonate. Years of experiments have related the amount of clumping in carbonate directly to temperature. Best of all, the starting composition of the water that formed the carbonate is irrelevant. If it formed at the same temperature, a researcher will get the same value whether large amounts of oxygen 16 were removed from the ocean by ice or not.

Ocean temperatures are not the only questions that can be addressed using clumped-isotopes, though.

Drs. Benjamin Passey and Naomi Levin at Johns Hopkins University, for example, are interested in human evolution. They wanted to tackle an old but important question: was the time period that led to the emergence of hominids cooler than the present in key anthropologic sites in Africa? Some researchers have said yes, but many have suggested that it was significantly warmer than present.

Many theories of human evolution depend on knowing what the environment was like at this time, so Passey and Levin decided to apply clumped-isotope methods to fossilized African soil (soil commonly contains carbonate minerals). They found that temperatures over the past 5 million years have been either the same as, or warmer than, the present. This limits, in their view, any hypothesis relating the evolution of human traits to those that can be explained by similar or warmer temperature to the present.

Jumping back many millions of years, Dr. Robert Eagle at Caltech wanted to know more about the metabolism of sauropod dinosaurs, massive creatures like the famous Brachiosaurus. A long-standing debate amongst paleontologists is whether these creatures were cold-blooded, deriving their energy from the environment like modern day reptiles, or if they possessed some form of endothermy, maintaining their body heat internally as mammals and birds do today.

A brachiosaurus looking unconcerned about finding warmth from the environment.

Because the bone and teeth of vertebrates are composed of bioapatite, a carbonate mineral, Eagle decided to use clumped isotopes to tackle this question. Previous work on modern animals has shown that the temperatures derived from teeth are representative of body temperatures. So in a 2011 paper, he looked at the temperatures recorded in the fossilized teeth of sauropods. He determined that the temperature at which the bioapatite in their teeth were forming was much higher than those for modern reptiles, similar to mammals, but lower than birds. This ruled out a cold-blooded dinosaur, and posed new questions about dinosaur biology.

Clumped-isotope paleothermometry is still in its infancy, but it is rapidly expanding. 2006 was the first year any paper used the term “clumped-isotope.” In 2011, 19 papers did, and many more are on the horizon.

Still many kinks need to be worked out. Methods need to be standardized and conclusions need to be scrutinized. Undoubtedly a period of time will come, as is the case with most scientific developments, where researchers identify more and more problems, adding a dose of reality to optimism. For now, though, the slight preference for some isotopes to stay bonded together is ushering in a new world of possibilities for earth scientists. This is the beginning of something big.


Rachel Carson and the Power of Science Writing

Is the pen mightier than the sword? Fifty years ago this month, one of those rare books was published that seems to have proven the famous saying true. Powerful industries opposed the book, but only succeeded in increasing its renown. President Kennedy appointed a commission to investigate; the commission reported that the author’s findings were correct. The book galvanized an environmental movement, led to laws and regulations that protected the country’s air and water, and brought treasured species like the bald eagle back from the edge of extinction.

The book, as you might have guessed, was Silent Spring, and the author Rachel Carson. Today we might wonder how such an influential writer could ever have emerged, but in the 1950s and ’60s Carson was a celebrity. And it wasn’t for writing scary books about pesticides; her main beat was the ocean. Carson became most famous for The Sea Around Us, which told the public about the stunning advances in scientists’ understanding of marine life. “With that book Carson not only became an international superstar, she became the most trusted voice in public science,” says Linda Lear, who wrote a biography of Carson. “She never wrote any article for the academic community. She wrote for the public, because she wanted the public to understand the world they lived in, the natural world.”

The Book of the Month Club edition of Silent Spring, with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s endorsement. Source: wikipedia

Carson was able to write authoritatively about science in part because she came from the academic science community; she earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. Today she might have moved naturally over to that university’s science writing program (where my co-bloggers and I now reside) and launched her career that way, but in her day she was forced to blaze her own trail. She attempted freelancing, which was apparently no easier then than it is today, but also got herself noticed by the Bureau of Fisheries (now the US Fish and Wildlife Service), where she was hired to translate marine science into accessible prose. Though she excelled at this job and moved up through the government bureaucracy, she was also setting herself up for an independent writing career. “What she really wanted to do is publish her way out of government,” says Lear.

So Carson was a science writer who started out, like many, as a celebrator of science. But because of her scientific training, she recognized the dangers that certain scientific advances—especially those in atomic physics and chemistry—posed to the ecosystems she loved. However, Silent Spring is not anti-science; rather it uses science to questions humans’ use of scientific knowledge in the post-World War 2 period. In answering these questions, Carson makes full use of her prodigious writing skills, eloquently synthesizing the best government and academic science of her time.

It would be nice if we could say Carson’s pen had vanquished the overuse and misuse of toxic pesticides, but with a few notable exceptions like DDT, most of them are still around. And as anyone who reads the news knows, the world is awash in all kinds environmental threats—endocrine disruptors, farm runoff, greenhouse gases. So where are the next generation (or two) of Rachel Carsons—writers who bring a scientific issue to the public’s attention and inspire citizens and politicians to act? Nancy Langston, environmental historian and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says part of the problem is the sheer amount being written. “Every time another book comes out such as…Our Stolen Future—that was the first really popular account of endocrine disruptors—people say, ‘Oh, it’s the next Silent Spring,’ but there are dozens of these each year. And I think a lot of people get overwhelmed.”

I’m particularly curious what Carson would have done with climate change, the most pervasive environmental threat today. After all, many talented science writers have taken up their pens (or more likely their computer keyboards) in the hope of overcoming the ignorance and inertia surrounding this issue. One who stands out for me is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose brilliant book Field Notes from a Catastrophe (which, like Silent Spring, was first serialized in the New Yorker) places climate change in its terrifying, civilization-destroying historical context. But did Field Notes lead to a presidential commission? Has legislation been passed? Have most Americans even heard of this book? Unfortunately, the answer to all three of these questions seems to be no.

It isn’t the fault of Kolbert or any other writer. The industries and groups opposing action on climate change are far more organized and sophisticated than those Carson was up against. “With climate change this isn’t just a debate, there’s a well-oiled machinery that actively propagates doubt, and is invested in that, and is tied up in the fossil fuel industries, and in making sure that legislative inaction is perpetuated,” says Rob Nixon, an environmental writer and Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nixon does point to Bill McKibben’s recent Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” where he writes that enough fossil fuel reserves are already on the books of major oil companies to warm the planet far beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the limit of what scientists believe might not be catastrophic. McKibben “has committed himself very squarely to this topic, very single-mindedly, so I think he’s the closest we come” to Carson today, says Nixon. Without question, McKibben’s article earned a lot of attention; for a week or two I found myself in conversations about it almost daily. But only for a week or two. The article also has the danger of doing exactly the opposite of what he probably intended: making the problem look so massive, and the industries driving climate change so mighty, that there is nothing we who have only our pens can do.

So can we still earnestly go around saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”? This famous line, from a now-obscure 19th-century play, encapsulates a sentiment that has probably given succor to many an idealistic writer, perhaps even Carson. And it would seem to follow that with the rise of the Internet and self-publishing, the daily avalanche of words would be enough to overpower any opposing force. But the opposite is true: with more words published than at any time before, each one seems to matter less. It’s hard to break through, and even harder to last: trending today, gone tomorrow. Will anyone recapture Carson’s gift for cutting through the fog? I don’t know, but for the sake of all members of the community of life, I certainly hope so.

* * *

Postscript: for my own amusement, I decided to try updating the famous line for the bureaucratic age. Let’s see if this proverb catches on: “Writing is a more effective means of advancing change than military action.”