Q&A with Christopher White

A Conversation with Christopher White,

author of




What inspired you to write this book?


The story grew out of my concern for climate change—in the Arctic, in the world’s oceans, on the African plains, and, of course, in the European Alps, which are wasting away. I wanted to know what was happening domestically. Was global warming showing proven effects right in the United States? When I heard about the disappearing glaciers in Glacier National Park, it sounded like a microcosm of what was happening in mountain ranges around the globe. That inspired me to write about them. I thought that telling the full story of glacier loss and all the downstream effects—right in our own backyard—might bring the crisis home in the minds of Americans.



Why is Montana, rather than Colorado or the Pacific Northwest, the best place to tell the story of vanishing glaciers?


Montana holds the second largest population of glaciers after the Cascades of Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia. What is most unusual is that because of its geography, particularly its elevation, Montana has shown 1.8 times the warming of the global average temperature increase. For this reason—the extreme heat for its latitude—over 80 percent of Montana glaciers have vanished. There were 150 glaciers in the late 1800s. In 2008, when I began this project there were 27 glaciers left. Today, there are only 25 surviving.



Why does the book profile Dan Fagre of the U. S. Geological Survey as the most intriguing glacier scientist in the country?


He is one of those rare, charismatic characters—a philosopher-scientist. Fagre is also a maverick within government circles. He is called to testify about climate change before Congress. He speaks at international events. But he is most at home on a pair of cross-country skies in the backcountry. With twenty years of experience in monitoring the health of glaciers in Montana, he has his finger on the pulse of the mountains and climate. When a glacier dies, he feels it in his bones.



How long will the glaciers last in Montana? What will the downstream impacts of their disappearance be?


In 2003, Dan Fagre employed a computer model to predict that all of the glaciers would vanish (or at least become inactive) by 2030—about 30 years down the road. Through the course of the book’s five year timeline, he modified that forecast to be 2020—as soon as 7 years from now. More likely is is ten years or so. The melting is speeding up. That means more creeks and streams will run dry for certain parts of the year. River volume, including the Columbia, Missouri, and Saskatchewan, will be lower. This means fish and aquatic invertebrates will be in trouble. So farmers will have less water. The forests will be drier and more susceptible to fire. Those are a few of the likely impacts. We’re seeing some of them already. We don’t yet know what all the domino effects will be.



What was the most difficult part of writing this book? Did you have any close calls in the mountains?


The hardest part was waiting for the weather to break. I spent fout summers in Glacier National Park, and the rain and snow often kept us in base camp. As it turned out, the USGS team required near-perfect weather for each glacier survey, so we had many cancelled trips. The good news was that when we did make it to a glacier, it was a glorious day. The book has several accounts of dramatic crevasse rescues and climbs in Glacier and the Alps. My closest call on this project came when a mother grizzly with three cubs started to charge us. Luckily, she pulled up short. But something like that really makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. The full episode is in the book.



How did the story affect you personally?


For the brief period I worked on the story, nearly 10 percent of the glaciers disappeared. That was a shock. On top of this, Dan Fagre’s estimate of how long the rest of the glaciers would survive was cut in half. I was personally affected by this tragic news. I realized that global warming is fast upon us and that its impacts are accelerating. Like all Americans, I am sadly touched by this growing crisis.



How long did it take to write the book, including research?


I got the idea for the story in early 2008, and it is being published in September 2013, so it took about 5-½ years from inception to publication.



 How is THE MELTING WORLD similar to, or different from, your last book, SKIPJACK?


SKIPJACK is the story of the last North American commercial fishermen to use sail power to catch their harvest. They are all but gone. The book is an elegy to the grand tradition of wind-powered fishing that goes back to the Age of Sail. In a similar way, THE MELTING WORLD is an elegy—in this case, to our vanishing North America glaciers. Both skipjacks and glaciers are endangered because of misuse of the environment—of water and ice. They are two dramatic sides of the same planetary crisis.



What is your writing process? Do you have a time and place for writing each day?


I undertake a massive amount of research before I interview the first subject or visit the first location. Once that is under my belt, I travel to the site, rent a cabin or cottage, and stay for several weeks. I feel this is important—to get a sense of place. Once I’ve collected experiences, interviews, action, and dialogue, I return home to write. I work every morning for 4 to 5 hours, unless one of my Maine coon cats, Tasa or Houdini, is sitting on my desk. If so, I can stretch my writing to 6 hours easily.



How did writing this story change your perspective on global warming and climate change in general?


I have a new outlook on the timing, proximity, and complexity of the climate change crisis. Global warming is moving at a faster pace. It is acting closer to home. And a third surprising dimension is the unexpected breadth of the crisis. Impacts are surfacing where least anticipated. In Glacier National Park, the timberline is moving uphill. On mountainsides, the uppermost edge of the trees is now higher. Bark beetles are moving north because the winters are milder. Cutthroat trout are being overtaken by exotic rainbow trout, which are more tolerant of warmer water.

Lynx and wolverines are moving north, following the retreat of snow pack. Fires are becoming more fierce and more frequent because of warming and drought. The mountain landscape is already riddled with these impacts, as documented in the book.

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