Bob Reiss is a New York-based author and journalist who has written 14 novels and three nonfiction books. His most recent nonfiction book, about global warming, is The Coming Storm—a project that inspired him to give lectures on climate change issues at colleges. I recently spoke with the writer about his latest feature in Smithsonian magazine, about Barrow, Alaska.
What drew you to this story?
Two things. One involved climate change and one involved the Coast Guard. I got interested in the polar regions; I’m still considering a book about it. I got on the phone and email and asked numerous experts in many fields, if there was one place on the planet that epitomized all the aspects of climate change going on in the Arctic, if there could be such a single place, what would they pick? I was surprised because everybody said Barrow. So I was interested in Barrow to start with. I’ve also, over the last few years, gotten a healthy respect or an increasing interest in the activities of the Coast Guard. In a way, you could call it the lone, official U.S. presence on the water in the Arctic. They seem to be the point men for finding out what we need to know in order to determine future national policy. So this article enabled me to explore both. The Coast Guard was generous enough to extend an invitation to accompany them on their visits to small villages as they learned about the Arctic for the future. Barrow was included.
How long were you there?
The whole trip was three weeks. We were in Nome for two weeks with the Coast Guard, which was fascinating. Everyday we’d go to the airport in Nome and get in Blackhawk helicopters and fly to different remote Eskimo villages. The Coast Guard was doing it so that they could learn the conditions in the air, test their communications, meet the people [and] learn their concerns. There was a humanitarian aspect to it because they brought veterinarians and doctors to treat the animals and people there. I came along to talk to the elders and hunters about conditions and how they were changing or not changing because of climate change. It was pretty clear that the conditions were changing fairly quickly, and most of the Eskimos I talked to attributed that to a change in climate.
How do you describe Barrow to people who have never been before?
Certainly, it’s a place I’d like to spend a lot more time in. It’s a fascinating place. It’s a beautiful place. In many ways, it’s an American town like a thousand other towns. Then, in another way, it’s a unique capital of the North Slope, of a region that most people never get to see. I guess, to me, it was a combination of an American town and a frontier town.
What work being done by scientists did you find most interesting?
I don’t really want to answer that question. I’ll tell you why. I really think that the politics and the future of that region exceed the scientific importance. I think that this is a region that will be crucial to the United States in terms of its economy, and in terms of global warming science, yes, and in terms of geopolitics over the next 15 years. I think that the region is paid far too little attention to in the lower 48. I think that there are certain places on the planet that are obscure places in one century and important places in the next. The Isthmus of Panama—who would have thought about that? Saudi Arabia—who would have thought about that? And yet you get into the time machine and walk out a hundred years later and these places are crucial. I think that the Arctic is such a place now. I think that Barrow is the heart of everything that is going on in the Arctic.
What surprised you the most when it comes to the researchers’ findings?
I think the important thing that I’m always reminded of when I talk to global warming scientists is that very few of the ones I speak to ever had any belief in global warming, one way or the other, before they started their work. When I give speeches, people are always attacking these scientists, and I find the scientists to be apolitical creatures who are interested in basic science and who are often as surprised as the rest of the people when they get their results. I don’t really find that a lot of them have political agendas, certainly before they start their research, and that is more of a surprise than anything else, because people who are not scientists are always pointing their fingers at them saying they have preconceived ideas or that they are setting out to prove one thing or another. And they’re not. They’re just doing basic research.
Was there a sight or experience from this trip that really made climate change visible, or hit home, to you?
Small things can really drive things home. Numerous remote villages’ residents would show me insects that had fallen from the sky that they had never seen before, and they wanted to know what they were. In one case, it was a grasshopper. In one case, it was a wasp. And in another case, someone in one of the villages had purchased a Sibley Guide to Birds. These are people whose ancestors arrived in this place thousands of years ago. They know everything that goes on in regard to nature, but so many new things were going on, so many new bird species were showing up, they needed to buy a book to identify them. That continually struck me.
What do you hope readers take away from this story?
I want people to come away realizing that the Arctic is important to the world and to their own personal lives. I want them to come away hoping that the United States as a nation begins to think of itself as an Arctic nation with Arctic concerns, an Arctic population and an Arctic future.