Overheated: A weak narrative undercuts the urgency of climate change

Overheated cover

Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change

Climate change is one of the most difficult subjects to tackle, and I admire any writer who attempts it. Though the reality of climate change is not in doubt—repeat, NOT in doubt—so much of its impact is speculative. Scientists can predict the rise of sea levels, the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, more powerful hurricanes, and so on, but no one can say with certainty how these will affect humanity in any detail.

In Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, Andrew Guzman takes his best shot. The University of California, Berkeley law professor tries to show how global warming will change the lives of practically everyone on the planet. Clearly worried about the power of denialists, led by President Donald Trump (though the book was written before his election), he answers each of the counter-arguments with unassailable rigor. If this were an argument before a judge and jury, he’d win going away.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem with this 2013 book, and many books like it. With a couple of notable exceptions, he offers few anecdotes or detailed speculations on climate change effects you and I might experience. The best story concerns the Chacaltaya Glacier, which disappeared from a Bolivian mountain in 2009. He also offers an alarming scenario involving disputes over water between two nuclear powers: India and Pakistan. Beyond these, however, much of the future impact of warming is theoretical. Writing about the potential for water wars, he says, “[C]limate change threatens to magnify existing risks, perhaps making the difference between an uncomfortable peace and a shooting war.” It’s hard for average folks to get excited about these unseen margins. Continue reading

Photos from Seattle Indie Book Fair

I visited the first annual Seattle Indie Book Fair today at the A/NT Gallery on Westlake in Seattle. At least two dozen independent authors and small press proprietors packed the gallery with science fiction, fantasy, non-fiction, and poetry. The gallery is a great space for showcasing some fabulous work by people taking DIY publishing to a new level. I purchased a Christmas comic and a fantasy novel. I can’t wait for next year’s fair!

New Place Names Book

Maritime Place Names cover imageWhat’s in a name? A ton of historical information, especially if all you have is a place name. That’s what Bellevue, Wash., researcher and author Richard W. Blumenthal discovered and documented in his new reference book, Maritime Place Names: Inland Washington Waters, which covers the waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific Coast of Washington. Blumenthal’s company, Inland Waters Publishing, has just announced the book’s availability.

The book “includes every named island, bay, point, inlet, pass, harbor, channel, strait, canal, passage, peninsula, rock, head, bank, bight, cove, lagoon, spit, sound, canal and shoal identified on current nautical charts,” Blumenthal says. “The book generally identifies the individual who named the place, when, why and for whom. In many cases, it also identifies the chart where the name first appeared.”

The book is heavily illustrated with 100 aerial photographs, 40 panaromic sketches by artist George Davidson, and 30 historical charts beginning with the early voyages of the Spanish and continuing with those of George Vancouver, Charles Wilkes, and later explorers. The charts go back to the 1780s. “Their precision is amazing when you realize the only instruments used, at least early on, were a compass, a sextant and a lead line,” Blumenthal says.

The 348-page, large format book is available directly through the author for $29.95 plus tax and shipping. For ordering details, email RichardWBlumenthal@hotmail.com or visit http://inlandwaterspublishing.com/.

New DeWire Lighthouse Guide

The DeWire Guide to Lighthouses of Alaska, Hawai’i, and the U.S. Pacific Territories, by Elinor DeWire. Paradise Cay Publications, 204 pages, softcover, $19.95.

DeWire Lighthouse Guide coverWhen it comes to lighthouses, most of the country’s attention focuses on the East Coast, particularly New England, where the density of lighthouses per square mile is greater than the population of fleas on a dog’s back. On the opposite end of the density scale, as well as the opposite side of the planet, are the lighthouses in Alaska, Hawaii, and the country’s island possessions. Though fewer and younger, these light stations have just as many interesting stories to tell, and prolific lighthouse historian Elinor DeWire has captured them perfectly in her new book, The DeWire Guide to Lighthouses in Alaska, Hawai’i, and the U.S. Pacific Territories.

DeWire’s 16th book is detailed enough to be a solid reference on the subject, while compact enough to help the casual traveler find and enjoy these sentinels. The lighthouses of the 49th and 50th state pose special problems for the visitor; many, if not most, are fairly remote, if not outright impossible to visit, unlike the urban lighthouses of the lower 48. And DeWire’s history of the lights on tiny islands such as Tinian and Howland (believed to be the final resting place of aviator Amelia Earhart), are a revelation. Until I read her book, I had no idea these lighthouses existed. And some, such as the lights on Guam, are as important to navigation as famous lights on the U.S. mainland.

DeWire rounds out her entertaining book with a tutorial on the history of buoys, silent, reliable, unsung guardians that have helped mariners since at least the 13th century. Today, the various types of floating markers, some of which gather information for weather and tsunami forecasts, make up 75 percent of America’s official aids to navigation, and the U.S. Coast Guard spends much of its resources on maintaining them. Though sea rescues are the most glamorous work performed by the Coast Guard, keeping these devices operating and in good condition is accomplished by a fleet of ships and an army of specialists. These men and women are heroes in their own right, and DeWire has done justice to their contribution.

Seattle Sea Captain’s Memoir

Sea Travels: Memoirs of a 20th Century Master Mariner. J. Holger Christensen, as told to Vaughn Sherman. Patos Island Press, 189 pages, softcover, $15.95.

Sea Travel coverAll families share stories around the kitchen table about relatives who experienced adventure or misadventure. Few lives, however, are as packed with tales as Capt. J. Holger Christensen, the son of Danish immigrants who was born on an Alaskan sand spit and lived as a seafarer on the west coast. And although most of Christensen’s stories are fairly ordinary, it’s the telling that’s fun in Sea Travels: Memoirs of a 20th Century Master Mariner. The book is an entertaining trip into a forgotten time, as if told by a grandfather to his extended family on a holiday evening.

Born in 1906 in the gold fields of Nome, Christensen and his large family eventually moved to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. His father, Niels Christensen, an experienced seaman who shipped aboard one of the last square-riggers in the Age of Sail, purchased a boat to haul cargoes of strawberries from the island’s fields to markets in Seattle. In the years between the world wars, Puget Sound was the major highway for the area, and boats were the most efficient way to move people and goods. One of those goods was black powder and dynamite manufactured at Dupont, a town named for the chemical company that produced the explosives.

In 1928, Niels’ boat, La Blanca, with the author as a crewman, was destroyed when 12 tons of its DuPont cargo blew up near Tacoma. That’s probably the most notable of Christensen’s experiences, except perhaps the day in 1947 when he and his father took President Harry Truman salmon fishing in Puget Sound. But Christensen’s storytelling shines when he talks about the more mundane times as crew or master of several ships. The tales include hell-raising on shore, helping out picketers during the key maritime strike of 1934, and rejecting the advances of ladies of questionable virtue brought aboard by a Russian ship captain.

Christensen’s life is presented by his nephew, Vaughan Sherman, who transcribed hours of oral history tapes into a cohesive and readable story. The book is supplemented by photographs and maps, and it’s a fabulous resource for armchair historians who want to go beyond names, dates, and places to get a sense of what life was like in mid-20th century Washington State. Christensen eventually left the sea as a career, but the sea never left him, and the joy of his memories is something to treasure.

Columbia River Danger Detailed

World's Most Dangerous coverSeafarers have called the Columbia River Bar, located at the mouth of Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, “the world’s most dangerous passage” for more than 200 years. Today, the city of Astoria, Ore., is the home of an elite group of bar pilots. Author Michael E. Haglund and illustrator Eric Baker have combined stories of the bar with tales of dedication and courage from its pilots in a new book, World’s Most Dangerous, published by the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

The book starts with the natural history of the Columbia River Bar and its formation during the cataclysmic Missoula floods 15,000 years ago. The book discusses the building of jetties to stabilize the shipping channel, the adventures and tragedies of the bar pilots and their operators, and finally the equipment used by the pilots to transfer to and from great ocean-going ships.

But it’s the human story that forms the core of the book. Nowhere in America are the standards higher for a maritime pilot’s license than the Columbia River Bar. The long history of dedication of the Columbia River Bar Pilots providing service in extraordinarily dangerous conditions is exemplified in Capt. George Flavel’s efforts to save the steamer “General Warren” in 1852. As he left the stricken ship stuck in the sands of Clatsop Spit to summon help, the ship captain called out “Pilot, you will come back?” Flavel shouted, “If I live, I will return.” He did, only to find that all hands had perished.

The soft-cover, full-color, 114-page book is now available through the Columbia River Maritime Museum online store for $36.

Great Lakes Ore Freighters

Deck Hand: Life on Freighters of the Great Lakes, by Nelson “Mickey” Haydamacker, with Alan D. Millar. University of Michigan Press, 118 pages, color and black and white photos, softcover, $22.95.

Deck Hand coverSo much of maritime history is the stories of great captains, visionary leaders, or risk-taking entrepreneurs. Of course, most of the actual work was done by people below them on the hierarchy from officers down to deck hands. As it turns out, even the lowliest mariners have great yarns to tell, and that’s the case with Nelson “Mickey” Haydamacker, who began his working life as a deck “ape” on Great Lakes bulk carriers in the early 1960s. With writer Alan D. Millar, Haydamacker has shared his early adventures in a new memoir, Deck Hand: Life on Freighters of the Great Lakes. It’s an immensely likeable story told as if Mickey were sharing a beer with you in one of the dives he visited in many lake ports.

In 1962, Haydamacker was an 18-year-old kid anxious to make his way in the world. Following the lead of relatives, Haydamacker applied for a job with the Ohio-based Interlake Steamship Company, one of the largest operators of taconite ore and coal carriers on the Great Lakes. Haydamacker vividly describes his trepidation and excitement as he boards the Elton Hoyt 2nd in Ashtabula. The young man had barely traveled outside his home town of Algonac, Mich., on the St. Clair River. He’s soon put to work fitting out the Hoyt for the upcoming season.

As the new man, he gets the worst jobs, starting with painting the exterior of the Hoyt the classic fire engine red of the ore freighter. He also explains “soogeying,” a term so obscure that it’s hard to find in dictionaries. It means scrubbing and cleaning the ship so that it’s spotless, and the work is never-ending. Haydamacker accepts the job good-naturedly–he doesn’t admit to much grumbling–and eventually he’s rewarded with a promotion to “deckwatch” by his second season. The new job has new responsibilities aboard a new ship, but the reader gets the sense that this intelligent fellow is getting a bit bored.

After two years, five ships, one serious mishap, and numerous visits to ports from Taconite Harbor, Minn., to Tonawonda, N.Y., Haydamacker decides that another career path, law enforcement, is more to his taste. He soon joins the Michigan State Police. But the two years aboard the ore boats adds critical lessons to his early years, and his memories are a fine addition to the big picture of life as a Great Lakes mariner.

Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil

Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Ross Coen, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 215 pages with color and black and white photos, soft cover, $24.95.

Breaking Ice for Arctic OilChristopher Columbus sailed west in 1492 hoping to find a new way to the riches of the Orient, but an undiscovered land mass stretching 10,000 miles north to south blocked his way. Ferdinand Magellan found a way around South America by way of Cape Horn, but until recently, the Northwest Passage around North America was more of a Northwest Blockage, at least to commercial vessels.

While Columbus and other explorers sought gold, it was another precious commodity, oil, that finally drew a merchantman through the Arctic ice. Historian Ross Coen of the University of Alaska chronicles the story of the first commercial ship to pass through the fabled northern sea route in Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen first conquered the Passage by ship in 1906, but the ice kept commercial vessels at bay until Humble Oil, now part of Exxon, saw an opportunity to profit.

Coen shows how the 1968 discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay changed the commercial shipping dynamics of the Arctic. Oil companies quickly latched onto a pipeline as the best way to get the oil out of the frozen north, but Humble Oil thought that a fleet of tankers could get the oil to east coast markets more cheaply, and thus more profitably. It refitted one of the world’s first super-tankers, the SS Manhattan, as an icebreaker, and sent it north in 1969. At first glance, the venture seems audacious, even foolhardy, but Coen successfully shows that the voyage was strictly business.

The political context of the voyage was labyrinthine: Environmentalists worried about the effects of an enormous oil spill on land or at sea, while most Alaskans saw Prudhoe Bay as delivering their state from its status as an economic backwater. Meantime, Canada resisted what some saw as an American incursion, thought it ultimately became a partner of sorts in the voyage. Though he does an excellent job of laying out these intrigues, Coen’s story shines as he describes the incredible natural barriers that literally held the huge ship back and the determination of her crew to get her to Prudhoe Bay.

Though finally an economic failure, the voyage of the SS Manhattan should be remembered as a pioneering trip through a remote wilderness that may be tamed by humans in an unexpected way. If the predictions of climate change come to pass, the Arctic will no longer be choked with ice in the next few decades, and ships may follow the trail blazed by the tanker through the Northwest Passage as easily as they pass through the Panama Canal. The Passage may finally become the economic boon the Manhattan sought.

Hidden History of Sealab

Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor, by Ben Hellwarth. Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, hardcover, $28.00.

SealabThe names of astronaut Neil Armstrong and rocket engineer Werner von Braun are etched forever on the popular mind as pioneers of outer space exploration. But they have eclipsed equally daring and dangerous exploits under the sea that happened at almost exactly the same time Americans were reaching for the moon. Author Ben Hellwarth in Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor attempts to correct this imbalance by examining the history of a particular type of underwater exploration called “saturation diving,” which put free swimming human beings at depths approaching a half-mile. And like the country’s space program, the quest to live in the deep ocean has come to a virtual halt.

Much of Hellwarth’s story focuses on George Bond, a country doctor who joined the Navy just after World War II and quickly developed an interest in diving. The technology for diving had barely budged since the invention of the classic hard-hat and rubberized canvas suits in the late 19th century. Men could go down to a depth of 100 feet or so, and the bends—painful bubbles of nitrogen that formed as divers rose to the surface—could be deadly. Bond determined to push the boundaries of diving, and with a team of Navy divers and technicians, research ways to go deeper and return without death or serious injury. Bond started on a shoestring, but after painstaking trial-and-error, found ways to put divers down as far as a thousand feet in relative safety. He “saturated” the divers’ tissues with breathing gases, notably helium, which made decompression easier and safer, and allowed them to live in undersea habitats for as long as a month.

Navy diversIt’s likely Bond’s story would’ve been completely forgotten if it weren’t for what Hellwarth calls a “celebrity diver” by the name of Jacques Yves Cousteau. Anyone who grew up in the sixties and seventies remembers watching the amazing adventures of the exploration ship Calypso and hearing Cousteau narrate in his unmistakable French accent. But for true followers of the dream of living for long periods on the continental shelf, Cousteau was mostly a showman who rarely went down more than a few fathoms. Real pioneers, including Bond, Navy diver Bob Barth, inventor Ed Link, Frenchman Henri Delauze, and a host of commercial divers, pushed the boundaries of deep water work, sometimes sacrificing their lives in the process.

Although overshadowed by the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in space, Sealab and the quest to live below the sea in habitats wasn’t quite as invisible as Hellwarth suggests. I remember as a nerdy child reading about Sealab and the divers who made it their home in the late 1960s. TV shows such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Sea Hunt, and Primus brought these ideas to the general public. But it’s true that the lack of an international competitor on the sea bottom probably contributed to the occasional “mail-order catalog” feel of the projects, as one of Hellwarth’s sources puts it; saturation diving never got the kinds of budget support enjoyed by the space program.

The sad codicil to the story of saturation diving is its similarity to the apparent abandonment of manned space exploration by the United States. Most of the research and experimentation by the Navy ended in the 1990s; both government and business turned to remotely operated vehicles, which can go far deeper than any free-swimming human, and special hard suits, which look very much like space suits, only made of steel. Like the nation’s space program, which is stuck in the doldrums today with no way to put people in orbit, the diving program has reached a stopping point. Although the technical barriers are daunting, we should hope that we’re only in a pause until our quest to go into inner space, as well as outer space, can begin another chapter.

History of U.S. Marine Corps

The First Leathernecks: A Combat History of the U.S. Marines From Inception to the Halls of Montezuma (1775-1848), by Don Burzynski. Warrior Publishing Group,117 pages. Soft cover: $24.95. Ebook: $9.95.

The First LeathernecksThe modern image of the U.S. Marine Corps comes from World War II: young men in green camouflage fatigues storming the beaches of tiny islands in the south Pacific, and in some cases, enduring an unimaginable slaughter. But the history of the Marines goes back to the beginning of the republic, though most people only hear the echoes in the first two lines of the Marine Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…” Military historian Don Burzynski lifts the veil on this history with his fascinating and thorough new book, The First Leathernecks.

Though they appear similar to the civilian eye, the Marine differs significantly from his U.S. Army cousin. Marines are “sea soldiers” with numerous missions, including securing beachheads that the Army can later exploit. In its earliest days, Marines specialized in defending ships from boarders. They also served as expert gunners and marksmen, picking off Royal Navy officers from a ship’s “fighting tops” during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In 1831, as Burzynski tells it, the Marines first took on a modern role as an expeditionary force when they attacked and destroyed a nest of pirates at Quallah Battoo in modern Indonesia.

The “shores of Tripoli” phrase in the Marine Hymn refers to the 1805 liberation by Marines of a group of sailors imprisoned by Barbary pirates based in the city that is now the capital of Libya. For the student of political history, the phrase also hints at President Thomas Jefferson’s moves to replace the leader of the pirates with someone more favorably inclined to American interests, a plan 21st century pundits might have called “regime change.” By the same token, the “Halls of Montezuma” refers to an almost suicidal but successful storming of a Mexican fort by Marines in 1848, part of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848, an American war of conquest which won it most of the southwest United States and set the modern southern boundary. In each case, the Marines overcame overwhelming odds that secured the Corps’ fearsome reputation.

Burzynski’s book is almost of hymn of its own kind to the early days of the Marine Corps. He has dug deep into sometimes sketchy source material and brought to light the troubles and early valor of the nascent branch of the U.S. military. Though the book is intended as a military history, it could have felt more three-dimensional with stronger portraits of key officers and more details about the struggles within the government about the role of the Marines. However, the lively illustrations by Charles Waterhouse and Burzynski’s detailed knowledge of this early time provide a successful foundation for further exploration.