The following is a copy of an essay I wrote that just appeared in the April 2014 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). The American Meteorological Society is the professional society for us meteorologists.
Global Climate Change: Fact or Fiction
Paul Mark Tag
For those of you who jumped here after reading the title expecting a sophisticated scientific treatise concerning global warming, I apologize for such a cheap trick. I am a writer, and I write fiction.
Six years ago I explained in another BAMS article why I retired from my job with the Naval Research Laboratory to start a new career, writing fiction. I had been a research meteorologist for 30-some years prior. At that time, I had just completed Category 5, my first thriller. That story revolves around hurricanes, obviously. I then switched to genetics and the genome as the basis for my second thriller, Prophecy. With White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy, I wanted to return to my area of science and chose a topically relevant subject these days, global climate change. But first, I had to decide how to approach such a sensitive issue in a work of fiction.
For the serious student of climate change, there are abundant quantities of data and research to be waded through, and questions to be addressed. If glaciers are receding, is this occurrence part of a cycle that repeats itself over the centuries? Is the planet warming permanently or is there a long-term cycle? Is the seemingly increasing degree of severe weather related to global warming? But, ultimately, most of us want to know to what degree we humans are impacting our environment. Because of the complexities of these issues, I decided that I could not fashion an exciting thriller around such subtlety and nuance. I needed something more definitive.
Accordingly, I chose to create a fictional scenario that I could control, one that was both plausible but also one for which I could give an accurate scientific description. Thriller writers often refer to a premise as being “incredible but plausible.” Remember Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, where DNA encased in amber is used to recreate a dinosaur? In Category 5, my antagonists launch a laser into space to heat water surrounding hurricanes. Both concepts are incredible but plausible.
For White Thaw, I needed a potential environmental disaster. Robin Brody—a meteorologist and esteemed colleague who regularly critiques my writing—and I had a hint of an idea but needed to flesh it out. Our concept involved the Gulf Stream. Most of us know that the reason Western Europe is warm compared to Alaska (at approximately the same latitudes) is because of this river of warm water flowing north from the tropics. So we consulted an oceanographer friend, Kevin Rabe, who expanded our knowledge about the workings of the Gulf Stream. He also told us of the concern that as Greenland’s ice melts, the resulting less dense fresh water flooding the North Atlantic might alter the Gulf Stream’s northward flow.
Following this discussion, Robin and I knew that we had a scientifically sound premise for my story: the bad guys, for their own nefarious purposes, would plan an ecological disaster by releasing into the northern Atlantic several glaciers on the eastern side of Greenland. The name “Helheim” in the book’s title refers to Greenland’s Helheim Glacier. (A recent BAMS article by Straneo et al. mentioned this glacier in its exploration of the response of “marine terminating glaciers” to oceanic and atmospheric forcing.)
We then came up with an idea by which the antagonists could accomplish this deed. I’ll not spoil the premise by explaining that here. Although our concept for doing so made sense to us, I had to make sure. For this reason, I contacted one of the foremost glacier experts in the world, Konrad Steffen, who at the time was working at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado. (He’s currently the director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research.) He was most gracious and agreed to help.
In addition to explaining to him the premise behind my thriller, I needed a lot of advice. For example, my initial inclination was to focus on the Jakobshavn Glacier on the west side of Greenland. For purposes of my diabolical deed, Steffen said that a glacier on the eastern side of Greenland was a better choice, and suggested the area near Kulusuk on the southeastern corner of Greenland. That recommendation led to the Helheim Glacier.
As I developed my story, I had numerous questions about Greenland itself. Following our initial e-mails, Steffen and I talked on the telephone. Because he has spent considerable time on the ice in Greenland, there was no question too trivial that he could not answer. Is the surface of Greenland smooth enough to operate a snowmobile? How deep must one go, and what concerns would there be in building an under-ice structure? Which months in Greenland are best to camp on the ice and to do research? What physical dangers lurk there, particularly during the warm half of the year? How does a researcher get transported to his ice camp? Steffen answered these questions and more, all of which were important to the technical development of my story. Further, he provided necessary geographic and physical data. Most important, at the end of our discussions, he gave his blessing to our idea concerning the release of the Helheim Glacier. Incredible but plausible.
Once I had all of the scientific details in place, it was then a matter of identifying a suitable villain and developing an exciting plot to pull the story together. It took me two-and-a-half years. Steffen read my initial draft and offered suggestions, as well as correcting scientific errors I had made.
The result was White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy. I have focused above on my environmental consultants, but I had others, related to medical matters, weapons, aircraft, and aviation, for example. As I always say in my acknowledgements, if there are errors left in the finished product, it’s my own fault. I couldn’t have gotten better support from all of the experts who helped me develop this book. Please visit me at www.paulmarktag.com.
For Further Reading
Straneo, F., and Coauthors, 2013: Challenges to understanding the dynamic response of Greenland’s marine terminating glaciers to oceanic and atmospheric forcing. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 94, 1131–1144.
Tag, P. M., 2007: A meteorological fiction. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 88, 1986–1987.
This post was written by paulmarktag01