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Hot Air: Dispatch from the Fiery Future

A WARMING PLANET is a deadly place to call home. We see the death toll linked to climate change mount every year: the 2003 European heat wave killed 70,000; over 100 Americans died during Hurricane Sandy; super-typhoon Bopha killed at least 900 in the Philippines; and a crippling drought in Texas and much of the rest of the southwest United States in the summer of 2011 drove global food prices to dangerous levels. Australia’s ongoing heat wave has reached such extreme temperatures that meteorologists have been forced to add new colors to their maps. And we have ourselves to blame. The European NGO DARA—an independent organization that focuses on vulnerable populations—estimates that 100 million people could be killed by climate change by 2030 if no action is taken. As James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading researcher on climate change, wrote in the Times in May, “the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe … were not natural events—they were caused by human-induced climate change.”

Given this crisis and its growing body count, it seems reasonable to assume that a book focused on all things hot would deal heavily with the subject. But while there are many ghastly ways to die in Bill Streever’s Heat, those who died in Texas and Russia are not among the topics covered. Instead Streever, a biologist, focuses on the more incidental causes of heat-related demise: volcanic lava flow, the dangers of kerosene lamps, peat-bog mummification, and good old nuclear incineration. He tells the story of Pablo Valencia, a 40-year-old prospector riding through Death Valley who failed to rendezvous with a friend bringing water, thus beginning an eight-day nightmare that would leave him blind and near madness, his flesh partially mummified. (Valencia was found and, miraculously, survived.) But what’s missing from Streever’s account, as interesting as it can be, is a sense of what tethers his snapshots together, something that fleshes out the particular tragedies into something larger.

This isn’t to say that Streever ignores climate change or today’s divisive environmental issues. The reader is provided with a running tally of the pounds of carbon emissions resulting from Streever’s experiences, from 1, 537 pounds burned on a flight to Alaska to “several tons” to make it to Venezuela. There is mention of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1972, which segues into a look at some early studies of greenhouse gases, mostly in relation to the last Ice Age. On a trip to Hawaii, he tours the atmospheric observatory that brought us the Keeling Curve—the data that shows the extreme growth in the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, from 310 parts per million in 1958 to about 390 parts per million today. His visit to Hawaii also prompts a short lesson in the evolution of the study of greenhouse gases. This foray and similar short intellectual histories scattered throughout the book form some of the more fascinating sections of the book. But these moments are lost in Streever’s shuffle—the jump from scientific explorations to his search for running lava, for example—and the relationships between his heat-related subtopics end up feeling arbitrary, failing to gel into a cohesive whole.

In Cold: Adventures in the Worlds Frozen Places, Streever’s 2009 look at the other end of the thermometer, he wrote an elegy to the world’s rapidly diminishing frigid landscapes. “It is time to enjoy an occasional shiver as we worry about a newly emerging climate likely to melt our ice caps, devour our glaciers, and force us into air-conditioned rooms,” he declared, and that book proved full of wonder at parts of the less-travelled regions of the world. But Heat does not capture the same sense of rigorous exploration. “I am not a lover of warmth, I am not a thermophile,” he admits (he lives in Alaska), and his lack of passion is revealed in what sometimes seems like a reluctant travelogue. We read of the terrible deaths caused by heat, but we do not feel them. We know that, increasingly, hot places will outnumber the cold, or even the warm ones, but we get no sense of how this will transform the way we live. One can’t help but notice, for example, that Africa, most of Asia, and the Middle East are largely absent from Streever’s explorations of “fiery places.” 

There are also some preoccupations that prove more distracting than enlightening. Firewalking, for example. While some of his thoughts on the subject are entertaining in an off-hand way—“cedar is the obvious wood of choice for firewalking”—the theme quickly wears thin. He repeatedly pesters bewildered firewalking instructors about everything from volcanoes to supercolliders. When he finally does complete his course across the coals, Streever has this to say: “And I jot down this simple note: ‘In firewalking as in life, your mind has to be in a certain place.’” This vague and insubstantial revelation (aren’t all things “in life”?) is about as much as we get from the experience.

Like Cold, the book is strongest on the type of facts and historical details that make for ready cocktail party fodder. There is an eye-opening discussion of an abandoned plan by the government of the United States to use a hydrogen bomb to open up Arctic waterways, and a detailed look at the origins of oil drilling America. And there are plenty of first-person experiments: Streever drinks crude oil, explores abandoned mineshafts, pokes at a stream of magma. At his best, his musings are thoughtful and tinged with dry humor. He also has a knack for explaining scientific phenomena to a general readership, confidently surveying both the historical development of scientific research and chemical reactions. But these strengths make the larger shortcomings of the book more noticeable and disappointing.

Ultimately Heat feels like a lost opportunity. Streever opens his book with a scene in which he holds his palm above a candle flame, believing the burn will kickstart his journey to “understand heat.” As painful as his exercise might be, the uncontrollable power of heat—the “raving thirst” and “unmanaged fires” that he attempts to tackle—has little do with candles and surface burns. The issues are undeniably larger. Streever has some interesting facts to share, but his book never rises above the level of collected anecdote. We feel a flicker of what he is trying to impact, but are never bowled over by intensity. It is indeed time to take a close look at the world’s fiery places, not for adventure, but as guides to our hot, hot future. 

Cara Parks is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Follow @caraparks