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Humpback Memories and Climate Change Research

2013 July 10

By Aaron Ferster

Humpback whale breachingI was hooked the first time I saw a humpback whale leap out of the ocean. All that impossible bigness exploding through the waves, hanging in the air for a moment, and then crashing back down into the water. A cascade of sea mist and foam where a forty-ton animal just existed.

Within a few months of that first encounter I was a volunteer data collector on a whale watch boat; not long after that I was the ship’s first mate, devoting my remaining college summers to securing lines, swabbing the deck, and climbing to the roof of the wheelhouse to scan the horizon for the next sighting.

Why was I thinking about the whale watching days of my youth during the President’s recent climate change address? Because as President Obama talked about his Climate Change Action Plan and the need for innovation and low-carbon fuels, it reminded me that long before whales were a tourist attraction, for most people their primary value was as an energy source. Flames burning whale blubber and oil kept homes, businesses and streetlamps glowing long after dark. Early lighthouse beacons ran on the highly prized spermaceti oil of Moby Dick fame.

Back then, whaling was big business, the staple of the economy in coastal towns all up and down New England and elsewhere. The tide began to change when the light bulb and electricity came into favor, cheaper and more abundant than dwindling supplies of spermaceti.

When will the next generation of energy arrive? While the consequences are certainly more daunting and far reaching than centuries ago when energy was harvested with a harpoon, I liked hearing President Obama’s optimistic talk about the promise of American ingenuity and innovation being equal to the challenges of the day.

As an EPA science writer, I may be an easy mark for such talk, but I also have a front row seat to some of the engineers and scientists working on the research and technical solutions to address, mitigate, and adapt to climate change.

Some of that work is highlighted in the latest issue of our newsletter EPA Science Matters. The issue features stories on how Agency researchers and their partners are helping decision makers, communities, and individuals incorporate the latest science into strategies and actions designed to protect public human health and the environment in the face of a changing climate. I invite you to read the issue, and join the expanding conversation on climate change through this and other EPA blogs we have in the works about EPA climate research.

About the Author: Before joining EPA as a science writer, Aaron Ferster’s work experiences included first mate on a whale watch boat, assistant elephant trainer, and zoo exhibit writer.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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