Meltdown

Meltdown

by James Powlik

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Overview

A DEADLY SECRET LIES BURIED BENEATH THE WORLD’S LAST FRONTIER

Dr. Carol Harmon has taken her research vessel, the Phoenix, deep into one of the most forbidding places in the world, the ceaselessly shifting Arctic icescape. In one frightening moment, everything goes very wrong. During a routine dive, two of her crew are ravaged by what appears to be radiation poisoning. Knowing she needs help fast, Carol calls on the person she trusts most, a man leading his own expedition on the opposite pole of the globe.

Brock Garner is an oceanographer, a former Naval officer, and a man who has never quite stopped loving his ex-wife, Carol. By the time Garner arrives, a frightening scenario is taking shape: Deep beneath the ice, something is leaking deadly radiation. Worse yet, it may be only part of a bigger cataclysm. A disaster of untold proportions is looming–the world’s first man-made Ice Age. A life-and-death battle is about to be unleashed...not just for the Arctic, but for the very future of Earth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440235095
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/26/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 4.21(w) x 6.87(h) x 0.96(d)

About the Author

James Powlik is a researcher with a PhD in biological oceanography who has been a consultant on science and education projects for government agencies such as the EPA, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the US Department of Commerce. In addition to writing numerous articles and research texts on global warming and other timely biological issues, he is the author of the books Sea Change and Meltdown. Dr. Powlik lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

May 6

66 degrees 36' N. Lat.; 81 degrees 30' W. Long.

Foxe Basin, Arctic Ocean

Below her, the ice was breathing.

Carol Harmon pulled her snow goggles down around her throat, adjusted the hood of her jacket, and tried to hold the syringe steady against the bite of the wind. Her fingers trembled not from cold, fear, or the ungainly size of the syringe, but from the awe of her magnificent trespass. The forty-gauge needle in her hand was as thick as a pencil and the plunger could draw nearly a pint of blood.

Carol shut her eyes for a moment, balancing, relaxing. She could hear the thin rasp of her own breath sliding through her throat in a shallow, steady rhythm, then see the vapor whisked away in air that was not quite twenty degrees Fahrenheit. In, out. In, out. A moment later, as if performing a gigantic mimic of this gesture, the ice moved with the gentle respiration of the whale beneath her.

She felt like a flea on the back of some immense dog, which she very nearly was. The trapped whale had been discovered only hours earlier during an acoustical survey conducted by the U.S. research vessel Phoenix a stone's throw inside the Arctic Circle. The ice, a floe the size of two football fields, obscured the exact size of this whale, its species, or even its sex. So far, the crew had exposed only four square feet of the animal's thick, blubbery hide.

Chipping down through more than three feet of solid ice, Carol and one of her technicians eventually managed to extend the opening forward, clearing a larger area around the whale's blowhole. Then, moving back and following some trial-and-error searching, other members of the research team opened another hole to expose the smallish dorsal fin at the base of the tail. An elongated ridge along the animal's spine gave the first indication that it might be a Balaenoptera musculus, a blue whale, the largest animal the earth has ever known. The prospect made Carol's heart race. From the distance between the two openings, Carol could estimate that the magnificent animal was also among the largest ever viewed in such suspended animation.

The impromptu landing party had been so preoccupied by the discovery that they had not even thought to look more closely at their surroundings. Then a radio call from the Phoenix--moored to the edge of the ice and nearly eighty feet above it at bridge level--reported more animals trapped by the same floe. Four more whales were discovered over the next hour, all of them Balaenoptera.

Unbelievable for many species, but especially so for the non-gregarious Balaenoptera, a pod of five animals had been assembled here, all adhered to the same piece of drifting ice. Individually or frozen together to form enormous accretions, such floating ice masses provided ephemeral islands and bridges for polar bears and foxes, and temporary rookeries for seals and walruses. To a whale, bound by bulk to remain in the water yet requiring unobstructed access to the air in order to breathe, a large, continuous floe was nothing but a nuisance.

As the floe slowly rose and buckled beneath them, Carol and the crew of the Phoenix were somewhat reassured that these whales still had plenty of energy left in them. But for these specimens to be so far north this early in the year, they must be struggling to sustain themselves, even with the ample reserves of blubber that comprised as much as half their body weight. Growing to over a hundred feet in length, Balaenoptera subsist on a diet of krill--shrimplike crustaceans high in fatty-acid content--using their baleen plates to filter up to five tons of sustenance per day from the plankton in the water. Frozen onto the bottom surface of the ice sheet, the whales couldn't possibly be feeding properly, much less sufficiently, and that was what concerned Carol most of all.

Soon the floe was alive with human activity. Carol's voice crackled over the walkie-talkies every few minutes, coordinating teams of technicians to examine each animal and report its condition. The remaining technicians and all available deck crew used portable heaters and set up bucket brigades of seawater to the openings in the ice, pouring as much warmed water into the holes as possible. This would perhaps lessen the adhesion and would certainly keep the animals' skin from chafing in the dry arctic air.

Such an extensive assemblage of animals was virtually unheard of, inspiring someone to dub this temporary landfall "the Balaenoptera floe." There was easily a career's worth of research here for someone, if only the whales could somehow be held this way and studied over time. Eventually the ice floe would break up, and the scientists knew their only reasonable course of action was to assist that process if these gentle giants were to survive. Any real studies would be incidental to their attempt to free the whales.

The most likely cause of the whales' entrapment was a late-season freeze with extremely cold temperatures. Carol knew that there hadn't been a storm in the area for more than two weeks, which meant that these animals would have been on starvation rations for some time, even after reducing their metabolic requirements. Another possibility was that the animals had simply become lost or disoriented--a phenomenon observed in whales for a number of reasons, ranging from magnetic disturbances to viral infections. In warmer climates, such maladies could cause entire pods to run themselves aground; in polar waters, the whales instead floundered in air spaces captured under the ice. Finding a breathing hole large enough, the animals might have to wait there for the floe to break up. By the time that happened, their warm-blooded bulk could become frozen to the ice the way one's tongue stuck to a piece of metal on a cold day. Without a breakup of the floe, many such animals died within a few days, their carcasses left to saturate and sink into the ocean's depths.

Whatever had put them here, Carol still had difficulty imagining their bittersweet windfall. Five whales. Over a million pounds of marine mammal, directly beneath her.

In, out. In . . . out. Breathe.

Such a discovery would be awe-inspiring to anyone; it was particularly entrancing to a professional whale biologist. Carol's interest in marine mammals of every description had followed her since childhood. The family had obediently followed the career of her father, Dr. Charles Harmon, from his graduate work at Yale to positions on three continents before settling on the west coast of Canada. There, Carol and her stepbrother, Mark, would comb the rocky beaches of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, looking for sea-lion rookeries. As they grew older, Carol and Mark would borrow small boats from the marine station and venture offshore to see gray whales on their annual migration to the Gulf of Alaska.

After an honors degree at Oregon State, Carol completed her master's at Stanford. Before venturing to Stanford himself, Mark had enjoyed a hitch in the U.S. Navy, working on ocean acoustics at a NAVFAC at Coos Bay, Oregon, then later, up the road at Newport, where the private sector caught his eye. It was in Oregon that Mark had introduced Carol to her first husband. Together, the three of them had worked in vaguely related areas of underwater sound propagation and had shared a nearly unbalanced passion for the sea. It had seemed the most natural thing in the world when Carol decided to specialize in bioacoustics and the study of whale vocalizations.

Carol's marriage, on the other hand, seemed like the least natural thing in the world. The eventual divorce left her deflated and without much professional motivation for the first time in her career. Eventually, she left her comfortable technicianship in California and went back to the intellectual womb of academe, this time for a doctorate at the University of Hawaii. Her work with humpback whales off the coast of Maui--a database of the complexities of whale vocalizations that she hoped to translate into a system of whale-to-human communication--was described as revolutionary and had earned her international recognition. For a brief time, it seemed as though everything in the Harmon family had found a balanced keel.

Now, more than a decade after leaving Stanford, Carol Harmon had tracked whales through every ocean and off the shores of every continent. She was doing an environmental-impact assessment in Prince William Sound, Alaska, when she met her second husband, Bob Nolan. Nolan was an environmental lawyer by training, with remarkable drive and business acumen that had helped him to develop a multimillion-dollar consortium of consulting agencies collectively known as the Nolan Group. Nolan was motivated by banner headlines, not quality--which generally used up more resources and held a lower profit margin--and he showed no remorse for that pursuit. In hindsight, Carol realized that she had known these things from the first time she met Nolan, but something had made her overlook them. Perhaps, as she foolishly blamed herself for the world's deficiencies, she had been unable to face "abandoning" another marriage. She chose instead to let her research consume her.

Then, like some divine punishment for ignoring her family and her personal life, Carol had lost both her stepbrother and her husband within a matter of weeks. It was tragically ironic that Mark had died as a result of exposure to a highly toxic marine organism discovered less than a mile from their father's retirement home. Soon after, her husband, Bob, had been killed by the same menace. Charles Harmon had never liked either of his daughter's husbands, so his attitude toward Bob's death was unsurprising, but he had remained so clinical and dispassionate following her stepbrother's death that he might as well have been mourning a complete stranger. That had been not quite three years ago, and Carol still found it difficult to resolve the resentment she held toward her father.

Following Bob's death, the Nolan Group's board of directors had voted, surprisingly and unanimously, to install Carol as their CEO. In hindsight, she realized that their strategy had probably been to let her inexperience drive the company into a nosedive, from which it would be easier to auction off its various constituents. But Carol proved them wrong. She had managed to retain most of the contracts and investors who had doubted the Group's ability to function without Bob Nolan. In the current fiscal year she had even been able to generate an increase in the company's earnings per share. Even so, she rarely made it to her well-appointed office at the Group's headquarters in Seattle, preferring to delegate operational matters to her cadre of buttoned-down vice presidents and financial advisors. She kept herself abreast of the Group's activities, offered opinions, and provided signatures when required, but remained heavily involved in her fieldwork for most of the year.

The Phoenix's principal assigned task was to track and monitor the belugas, bowheads, orcas, narwhals, and gray whales of the Canadian Arctic. The team would also use Carol's vocalization program to determine what effect shipping traffic had on the larger animals. Underwater, the noise from a single oil tanker's engines could travel fifty miles on either side of the cruise track--to say nothing of the noise generated by the fracturing ice itself. The combined effect of this disturbance was believed to be disruptive to whale migration, breeding, and communication, a speculation that the Nolan Group had now been contracted to quantify.

Though Balaenoptera had been added to the endangered species list and were protected by international treaties, their numbers continued to dwindle under the influence of poaching and black-market whaling. What commercial fishing hadn't culled, global development did. Around the world, marine mammals were washing up on beaches in unprecedented numbers, killed by viruses, distemper, or a dozen other inexplicable causes. The tissues of beluga and other arctic whales routinely showed cancerous tumors, ulcers in the digestive tract, respiratory infections, and alarmingly high levels of mercury and PCBs. Then there was noise pollution. Before the onset of the industrial age, Balaenoptera could send their vocalizations across entire oceans. Now the cacophony of thousands of ships was slowly diminishing their watery playground.

And if not whalers, if not pathogens or noise, the ubiquitous but wholly natural threat of ice could still kill them.

Carol pressed the needle into the whale's thick hide once more. Twice her disposable needles had been bent closed by the thick, muscular flesh at the base of the tail, where the animal's blood vessels were closest to the surface. The third time the penetration was clean, and as she drew back the plunger of the syringe, the chamber filled with dark red blood. Carol carefully twisted the sample from the base of the needle, labeled it, and placed it on ice in a small box containing a dozen others. Though blood sampling was technically outside the team's investigation, the serum would provide an insight into the animal's health. She could think of two or three other researchers who would give anything for a sample of "blue blood."

"Easy," she murmured to the whale, patting its skin as she filled another syringe, then withdrew the needle. "All done, girl . . . or boy."

Carol heard snow crunching behind her and turned to see a figure in a bright orange parka suit approaching her. Jeff Dexter, her senior technician, flashed her a broad smile from behind his thick, frost-tinged beard.

"What's this I hear?" he asked. "The infamous Dr. Harmon can't even sex a whale?"

"Not without a better look," she said.

"I guess if all we can see are the blowhole and the dorsal fin, we're a little like the blind men in a herd of elephants," Dexter said. He kneeled down beside her, brushed back her hair, and gave her a warm kiss.

"I've heard of elephants too," she said, playing into the old comedy routine.

"No, no, an elephant herd," Dexter said. The warmth of his breath against her face was soothing and arousing all at once.

"What do I care what an elephant heard?" Carol whispered. "I've got nothing to hide."

"Then why are we whispering?"

"Because I think this is the single most exciting discovery of my life," she said. Dexter could admit the same thing, and their shared excitement left both of them yearning for a more private location in which to celebrate. But for now, duty called.

"I've got Ramsey prepping some scuba tanks and drysuits." A mischievous twinkle lit his eyes. "We're going swimming."

"You're serious?"

"You bet," Dexter grinned again. "We're going to drill another ice hole between this whale and the next one over and do a dive around two of them, at least."

"And do you have permission to do this?" Carol asked.

Dexter kissed her again. "I dunno. Do I, boss?"

"Take your camera," she said. "Matter of fact, take two."

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