A Little of the Story Behind the Story
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Without a shirt on—because it was that hot—my expedition leader ascends a glacier-covered mountain to reach a lookout point for viewing Neko Harbour in Antarctica. (Photo by Dan Linehan)

Everyone’s life is connected one way or another to the lakes, rivers, and oceans. To the ice and rain. To the forests, plains, mountains, and farmlands. And especially to the very thin layer of breathable sky that encapsulates us all. But learning about these important interactions doesn’t mean you can’t have fun at the same time. Yes, climate change is an extremely serious matter. Until it is solved, it will always be one.

However, why not also celebrate the marvel and beauty that our world provides for us while still trying to protect it? Let’s shake things up a little.

For a long time, I’ve struggled with the fact that science, data, reason, and logic are not winning the climate change battle. I know this from firsthand experience on the front lines.

Going back deep into the last century, we have more than sufficient rigorously determined scientific results and evidence proving rapid, human-caused climate change from the emission of greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide (CO2), by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gasoline.

Why is it that so many people—who happen to also heavily rely on science to produce the technological innovations (such as electronics, computerization, and advanced manufacturing) that are woven into almost every aspect of daily life—refuse to believe in unnatural climate change and the factors that cause it? Why do they continue to support the very barriers that prevent solutions?

As viewed from an icy lookout point on a mountain, massive crevasses form in a giant glacier at Neko Harbour, Antarctica. (Photo by Dan Linehan)

Back in the infancy of the scientific method, there are many examples of how scientific fact challenged outdated ideals, doctrines, and policies that were embedded in the societies of the time. Once, people believed Earth was flat because they didn’t use science to back up their beliefs.

Unpopular scientific facts didn’t just damage the reputations and careers of those who brought them forward—they could land scientists in prison for heresy. This is exactly what happened to the scientist who proved that Earth orbited the Sun, not the other way around. The mere fact that Earth circled a star threatened the entrenched ruling power at the time.

Looking back, it is ridiculous to think that scientists’ lives were at risk for something that is now taught to students in elementary school.

So, how to flip such an important equation and prevent unfortunate history from repeating itself? This is a question that I’ve spent many years studying.

Earth’s atmosphere is actually incredibly thin (the barely visible blue line curving over the surface). This photo was taken from onboard the International Space Station, which orbits at about 200 miles. Most of the atmosphere is contained within only 9 miles of the surface. (Photo by NASA)

In my essay “The Severity of Weather Around Us,” I wrote:

It is easy to stare up at the sky and think that it goes on and on, touching space and the edge of the cosmos. This is simply a mirage. We live in the troposphere, which is the lowest layer of the atmosphere. It extends to about 7 to 9 miles above sea level and contains between 75% and 80% of all the mass of air. With respect to the size of the planet, the atmosphere is incredibly thin. It is like the thickness of plastic wrap stretched over a basketball.

Most weather also occurs within this fraction of the atmosphere’s thickness. This is one of the advantages of modern airliners flying at altitudes of around 7 miles. Before pressurized cabins and jet engines, flying on airliners was a lot more bumpy of a ride than nowadays. Airplane wings still require air to flow around them. This is a major limiting factor to how high airliners can fly. An altitude of 9 miles is typically out of their reach. Also consider that oxygen masks are needed if an aircraft ever depressurizes at cruising altitude. Even walking on a mountaintop 2 miles above sea level can cause altitude sickness if you’re not acclimated. Our atmosphere is this thin.

So, when some people say that humans cannot possibly be altering the atmosphere, they are making outrageous and preposterous claims that defy basic science, data, and the history of very serious actual events. Look at the gigantic hole in the protective ozone layer, for example. Without the ozone layer, we’d be constantly bombarded by dangerous amounts of UV radiation. Even with the ozone layer intact, too much exposure to the UV radiation in sunlight can cause deadly skin cancer. There would be no sunbathing or uncovered skin while outdoors in a world without an ozone layer.

It was not just the hole in ozone layer that was discovered by science and addressed by science. Acid rain in the 1970s and 1980s destroyed forests and poisoned lakes. Again, science took the lead and solved the problem. Decades ago in Los Angeles, there were many more days of smog than without. Schools would even close because of this. Using science to make cleaner-running cars dramatically improved the air people breathed in California. Though there are substantially more cars on the road now compared to the days of endless smog, the air is still much cleaner than before. These are all examples of vast atmospheric problems created by people that were then identified and safely corrected by science.

But even today, it is still not that simple to rely on science alone to solve challenging problems. During the United Nations’ 21st Conference of the Parties (COP), the giant climate change meeting that happened in Paris at the end of 2015, French climatologist Valerie Masson-Delmotte stated: “Scientists are not poets.”

She was meaning that though scientists are good at figuring out the facts, they are not so good at figuring out how to reach the hearts of people. This is where I come in.

Satellite imagery showing 1,255 square miles of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica disintegrating in 35 days. (Images by NASA)

My defining moment with climate change came in 2002 from a NASA report with a series of satellite images that showed the breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

At 1,255 square miles, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island and several times larger than Monterey Bay, Larsen B had disintegrated with shocking speed. In 35 days it was gone.

In early 2006—before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out—I decided I was finally ready to do some serious writing about climate change. The Antarctic Peninsula was warming five times faster than the rest of the world. Its temperature has increased by more than 4.5°F since 1950.

Since this was one of the major battle lines, I arranged a thirty-six-day expedition to Antarctica, subantarctic islands, and Patagonia that began in late December 2006.

Due to my extraordinary experiences on the expedition (okay, some really, really crazy stuff happened), I extended my entire trip to over sixty days.

Over the first week of February 2007, from an internet cafe in Ushuaia, an Argentine port city in Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), I created and posted a heavily curated photo gallery with descriptions and captions explaining photos that I had recently taken in Antarctica, South Georgia, Patagonia, the Falklands, and more [read here]. I also included with it part one of a narrative [read here], which gave an overview of my voyage and expedition to study climate change where the effects were happening most notably at the time—Antarctica. I never added to it again.

Now the effects are a lot closer to home, and I’m returning to a multimedia approach. It is amazing how some things change and some things don’t.

I found that to tackle such a critical issue as climate change, it was important to spread the message using multiple mediums. In addition to documentaries and presentations, things like music, art, film, and literature can make strong connections with people.

Some approaches can better reach people who would ordinarily tune out something about climate change. This is when my writing about what I faced in and around Antarctica transitioned from nonfiction into fiction.

Calving of Risting Glacier on South Georgia Island. (Photo by Dan Linehan)

However, the summer of 2006 was when I got my book deal for SpaceShipOne, and then the sequel followed. They were fantastic science communication opportunities, so I wanted to do a great job on them in order to help the publication of The Princess of the Bottom of the World. And time goes by so, so much faster than we want it to.

In August 2012, to move from space back to climate, I trained in San Francisco with Al Gore and his Climate Reality Leadership Corps. On September 27, 2012, I published a five-page cover story in the Monterey County Weekly about severe weather caused by climate change, which appeared less than a month before Superstorm Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard.

My cover story about the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather was published on September 27, 2012, about a month before Superstorm Sandy hit. As is the case for most newspapers, the editors are the ones who usually write article titles. But for this article, at least I got to influence the subtitle. (Cover by Monterey County Weekly)

The whole world watched the disaster unfold across the region. This hit close to home because I grew up in New York. In fact, the CBS studio in Manhattan where my brother worked was destroyed.

After rewatching Midnight in Paris, it really struck me that the work of the writers and artists in the film was about Paris, and they were in Paris. So, I decided to return to Argentina to continue my writing there.

In early January 2013, I was accepted into Residencia Corazón, an artist residency program in La Plata, Argentina, for work on The Princess of the Bottom of the World. I was the first writer ever accepted.

My trip was supposed to last ninety days. But I ended up staying a year and half.

The face of the Perito Moreno Glacier, in Patagonia, crumbles. (Photo by Dan Linehan)

On April 2, 2013, only two weeks into my residency, the most deadly and destructive tormenta (storm) in the history of La Plata hit. In a 6-hour period, over 12 inches of rain fell. Over 15 inches fell during the entire day.

I watched as the city streets and intersections in front of me turned into rivers and lakes. The cars that risked navigating splashed through like boats. During this time, as I walked through the city, I crossed washed-over roads filled with rapids and felt wetter than if I had fallen overboard from a ship at sea.

When compared to the amount of precipitation La Plata gets annually, the storm’s resulting deluge was even more startling. The city normally receives 43.0 inches of precipitation during a year. A year is 8,766 hours long. During this storm, 15.4 inches fell in 24 hours. In such a relatively short period of time, it was an enormous 35.9% of the city’s annual rainfall.

This storm occurred in one of the typically drier months and amounted to an astounding 465% of the average rainfall for the month of April.

La Plata, the capitol of Buenos Aires province, is a modern planned city, which means that it didn’t grow out from a village sprawling into a town and beyond. It was carefully designed to be a city from the start. But even so, floodwater rose to above 6 feet in places.

When the floodwater finally receded, streets had cars stacked on top of each other. Many, many people had lost their lives. The death tolls were underreported. I had a friend there who was a premed student. He told me that the morgues in the city were overflowing. To this day, it is uncertain just how many died.

In 2013, a historic and deadly storm floods La Plata, Argentina. (Photo by Dan Linehan)

One thing that made the flooding much worse was that a nearby oil refinery closed its floodgates to protect itself from flooding. Since the oil refinery was downstream of the city, this restricted the floodwater flowing out of the city by normal waterways. The oil refinery had sought to save itself at the expense of the city—a bloodcurdling metaphor for what’s happening on a global scale.

So when the storm hit La Plata, I felt like I had just seen something like this already play out with Superstorm Sandy.

After all the emergencies were addressed, the people of La Plata sought answers. I was invited to talk about climate change along with a professor from the National University of La Plata and a local environmentalist. They covered more of the local aspects, whereas I covered more of the big-picture stuff.

Right after my talk, I was invited to give another lecture about climate change, but this time directly to the university. What was supposed to be only a forty-five-minute presentation turned into a talk that lasted over two hours.

One of the local language institutes also arranged for me to give a four-part course on climate change.

And things continued to happen. Many story opportunities came, for places as diverse as the Smithsonian Institution, educational companies, and even Relix music magazine, for which I wrote about the first time Argentina hosted the music festival Lollapalooza. But during all this time, I continued doing outreach and my fiction writing.

By the time I left Argentina in 2014, after eighteen instead of three months, I had finished the first complete draft of The Princess of the Bottom of the World. The work now includes my experiences with the deadly storm in La Plata. It closes with this punch!

The Princess of the Bottom of the World is now a seven-episode series of multimedia novellas. Episode 1 was released March 1, 2019, and a new episode will follow every four weeks. [find multimedia episodes here]


Copyright © 2005-2019 by Dan Linehan. All rights reserved.