Friday, July 30, 2004
Newspapers looking for love in all the wrong places
It's hard to watch a loved one grow sick and die, as print journalists know too well. Newspapers have been on a slide for years and remedy seems remote.
Thus, a recent memo to Tribune Co. employees came as little surprise, just another notice in a series of bad years. Two hundred jobs in the news division are being eliminated through early "buyout" retirements or, in the absence of volunteers, layoffs.
So it goes in the print world, as circulation and advertising revenues don't measure up. In 2001, Tribune cut 1,700 jobs.
Other newspaper companies face similar straits. Warren Buffett, whose company owns an 18-percent interest in The Washington Post Co., recently predicted that the economic health of newspapers will seriously deteriorate in the next two decades.
It is a depressing time for lovers of newspapers and the old world of print journalism. It is also hard not to wonder whether, in seeking explanations and solutions, we're suffering from self-delusion and denial.
Ironically, no industry spends more time on the couch than the newspaper business. We're the most self-analytical tribe around, always asking ourselves, "What do readers want? How can we make ourselves more attractive?"
We're like desperate women reading fashion magazines for clues to snagging a man. More cleavage? Better kisses? Hotter lipstick? And so we print special youth-oriented editions, for instance, that lose money and insult the intelligence of would-be readers who happen to be young.
All the while, numbers drop and jobs disappear, while the blogosphere explodes and cable news ratings soar. Is it possible we're looking for love in all the wrong places?
Let me be blunt. Newspapers bite. The work isn't much fun anymore, thanks to the soul-snatching corporate culture that has euthanized newsroom personalities. Most papers reflect that numbers-crunching, cubicle-hunkering mentality. We're boring, predictable, staid and out of touch with the folks with quarters.
Nobody rushes to the rack anymore to see what the paper's great voices have to say because there aren't many great voices left. Meanwhile, half the nation's editorial cartoonists - Doug Marlette's "designated feelers" - have disappeared from editorial pages, leaving holes where hearts used to beat.
With television offering headlines - and Internet blogs offering inspired commentary - why do people want to get their hands dirty reading stale stories that fail to ring the chime of truth?
Declining reader confidence isn't just about high-profile scandals such as the Jayson Blair/New York Timesand Jack Kelley/USA Todaydebacles. Distrust is also tied to the reality "disconnect" between those who produce newspapers and those who read them.
Yes, the media tilt left and the Earth is round. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center that has journalists debating themselves reports that the elite media are far more liberal than the public ("Ordinary Americans," as the elites like to call you). While 34 percent of journalists self-identify as liberal, only 20 percent of Ordinary Americans do. Only 7 percent of journalists consider themselves conservative, compared with 33 percent of the public.
Even those figures may be misleading, as a large majority of journalists consider themselves moderate. You be the judge.
In 1992, 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Bill Clinton, and 90 percent of journalists believe in a woman's right to abortion. By contrast, 49 percent of Ordinary Americans voted for Clinton, and more than half think abortion is morally wrong, though six in 10 don't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
To address this values schism, the American Society of Newspaper Editors naturally is putting its energies into racial and gender parity. By the year 2025, the ASNE wants to achieve 100-percent parity by hiring Asian Americans, blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics and women proportionate to the numbers in our communities.
Obviously there's nothing wrong with trying to make newsrooms reflect the American community, though quotas by definition suggest a compromise of standards. But the racial parity mandate is symptomatic of what ails newspapers. It's the perfect bureaucratic Band-Aid, a cosmetic fix that looks good but is a superficial corrective.
Parity does not equal quality. But hiring by the numbers makes us feel good and gives us bragging rights to public virtue. We may be dying, but at least we're diverse! We'll all go down together.
As even Ordinary Americans know, adjusting the racial makeup of a newsroom doesn't begin to address why newspapers are losing readers. As with the Cosmo girl who can't find her man, it's not the makeup that's wrong; it's the soul that's gone missing.
Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)
June 27, 2004 Sunday
INSIGHT; Reader Advocate; Pg. D-3
T-U Metro section lacks space, news readers want much more
Mike Clark, Times-Union Reader Advocate
Readers want local news. The more local the news, the better.
Yet, the small size of the Metro section does not come close to filling reader requests.
Today's column is the second in a series examining the newspaper's sections, all taken from the reader's perspective.
While readership of the Metro section is nearly as high as the A section, most advertisers prefer to be up front in the A section. Since advertising largely determines the number of pages in a section, that means little space in Metro.
"Starving" is the best description for news space in Metro. When the section is limited to six pages, it looks something like this: A front page, about two pages of paid obituaries, two pages of editorials and opinion columns and some news on the back page. Toss in display advertising and you're left with barely two pages of local news. Staffers have taken steps to reduce the frequency of those six-page sections, but it's an extreme example of a continuing space crunch for local news.
Given enough space, however, it's the job of the Metro staff of reporters and editors to make their stories relevant. Too often, stories are based on the same government and official agencies. Not many regular people. Not much pizzazz.
There is one recent addition, though. In response to reader surveys, the Times-Union has been writing more news stories on people who have died in the community -- news obituaries. Those stories usually go in the Metro section. The residents being profiled don't need to be VIPs, just people who have lived interesting lives.
A few more comments:
-- Though the section is called Metro, it continues to focus on Jacksonville. Yet population growth in neighboring counties is astounding. Without a regular spot for suburban news, readers must hunt for an occasional story. Years ago, the Metro section included a page of news for Clay and St. Johns counties. Bringing back a daily page of suburban news would be a good start for thousands of commuters who work in Duval and live elsewhere.
-- The Sunday Metro section often has little local news. Last week's section included a Father's Day package that seemed a spillover from Lifestyle, a column, two feature stories and brief items from City Hall. There were two pages of paid obituaries and nearly a full page of traffic alert items.
-- The Metro section on Monday includes a list of civic activities during the week, but every day's newspaper should have a list of "What's Happening." A reader should be able to pick up any day's paper and know how to plan for the next few days.
-- Local coverage includes investigations in which the newspaper fulfills its watchdog role. Those stories often run on A-1, but are reported by Metro staffers. When is the last time this newspaper conducted an investigation that resonated with readers? Perhaps when reporters followed the working habits of fire inspectors several years ago.
Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker wrote last week that newspapers are "boring, predictable, staid and out of touch with the folks with quarters."
When it comes to the Metro section, wouldn't it be great if it were exciting, surprising and a must-read?
Friday, July 23, 2004
Charleston Post and Courier
Artist examines the mind's magic, mystery
BY BILL THOMPSON
Of The Post and Courier Staff
"The real wonder of the brain, I think, is the ease with which it can craft a fluent, persuasive stable sense of self when there is all this uncertainty and commotion going on."
Diane Ackerman should know. She has been deflecting the din of the world, making connections and communicating fluent, persuasive insights for years. The respected poet, naturalist and author of literary nonfiction has brought all of her curiosity and artistic skills to bear for her latest book, "An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain" (Scribner).
It's Ackerman's eighth book of nonfiction, which keeps amiable company with seven volumes of verse and three installments in her continuing series of nature books for children.
With the same elegance and attention to detail that characterized her "A Natural History of the Senses," Ackerman explores how our celebrated "gray matter," an intricate tangle of billions of neurons, functions to make us at once unique and universal.
The mind trying to decipher its own mysteries is not unlike an artist having difficulty drawing or painting the human hand. In some ways, we're too close to the subject.
"We are the only facet of nature that we can't stand outside of and observe," says Ackerman. "So to some extent our understanding of the brain will always be a mystery that's just out of reach. But we have begun to understand an awful lot about how it operates because we are so good at self-reflection and we are such curious beasts that we want to know all the time. We have a part of the brain that's constantly asking, 'Why, why, why?' "
The Ithaca, N.Y., resident, who earned her doctorate in English and comparative literature from Cornell University, always has been equally intrigued by mind and matter.
"I started out in physiological psychology at college and thought that was what I'd go into, but when I transferred colleges, the computer put me in English by mistake. At 18, you think it's fate. I decided that since I'd been writing enthusiastically all my life, I would stay in English, But I kept my fascination with the mind. And I've been writing about it in different forms in all different kinds of books about the senses or love or the dark night of the soul, or our relationship with nature."
Finally, she determined it was time to sit down and get up to speed on neuroscience. Quite an undertaking.
"Nothing really is available to us except through the brain. It's the only way we can know the world. In one way it imprisons us but in another it gives us so much freedom because it allows us to extend our bodies and our ideas in time and space. I've enjoyed so much thinking about how all that works and trying to find language that would both capture the scientific reality of the brain but also a sense of what the experience of having a brain and mind feels like. This book is a celebration and a kind of factual tour. I think of the mind as a comforting mirage that the brain creates so that we will feel continuous and real. Though, of course, we live from one illusion to the next."
In the chapter "The Emotional Climate," Ackerman notes that the discrepancy between "the actual world and what we choose to know about it is so vast that we often make mistakes, overreact, fill in some spaces with superstition." Our concepts may remain orderly but "our emotions are still Pleistocene."
"There's a time lag of half a second between perceiving something and being conscious of it. It takes time for the perception to roll around the brain and the brain to circulate the news. So it feels like we're sensing things and knowing about them at the same time, but brain time isn't world time. We're all a little offbeat, by design. Evolution has made us willing fools who would otherwise not be able to cope with reality and be late for absolutely everything, which we are anyway. So there's this watchman in the pantry who backdates events."
Ackerman says that it is also instructive to view that pivotal invention of the human animal, language, as being poetry in all its forms, and that one of the ways in which the brain functions rests with its continuous use of metaphor.
"We use countless metaphors all the time, unconsciously, because we need a hinge between feelings and ideas. Here we are, minds that inhabit a visceral body, and we rely on the abstraction of language, but we need a way to embody thought and to make ideas sensible, and be able to probe the world even when our body is resting. That, for me, seems quite miraculous. And we do it through metaphor. Thought becomes action that we can then stage right in the mind's eye.
"We do it so fast that we don't notice that we're really playing an elaborate what-if game so that we can protect our bodies. That's why it evolved. We need words to hold on to thoughts."
Too often, interpretation of research into the brain has seemed to be in thrall to ideology or the academic fashion of the moment. Apart from the intellectual straightjacket this implies, don't such people miss the beauty and poetics of the thing (as well as the good, unalloyed science being done)?
"Always, they miss the beauty and poetics of it. I suppose that's why I'm not a straight up-and-down scientist. I would never be happy. I am essentially an artist, a poet, who rejoices in the revelations of science. For me, nature includes all of it. I just think of myself as a nature writer, a nature poet, if what you think of as nature is the full sum of creation."
As an observer of how we apprehend the universe, one thing that disturbs Ackerman more than most is the effects of watching violence on television, in movies and in video games, and what that can do to the brain. A contention we dismiss at our peril, she maintains.
"So much of what we see is so graphic and gruesome that I don't know what effect it's going to have on our brains in the future. Are we changing our own evolution? To some extent, we have been all along, when we invented civilization, agriculture, etc. We don't always play by evolution's rules. We make our own. But there is a question about whether we're living in sensory overload and how violent images, and how this rapid-paced, novelty-mad society is going to effect the brain. Can it make permanent changes in our children and in ourselves, and our human nature?"
Nature or nurture? Well, both, Ackerman thinks. Is anything in life not a synthesis of influences?
Also freighted are the subjects of intelligence and genius. Ability is one thing, extraordinary ability another. Talent does what it can, genius what it must.
"I've been curious, too, whether or not geniuses are truly different," Ackerman says. "There is some evidence that smarter people have more gray matter in their frontal lobes or that one part of the brain may be more developed than another. But I think they also differ greatly in how they learn to use their memory. They tend to quickly recognize patterns and better store and retrieve long-terms memories when they need to. That's found to be an hereditary trait.
"People who study geniuses in the arts and sciences find that perseverance plays an absolutely crucial role, as does motivation and also the ability to play. The single greatest ability is the ability to persevere."
PASSION AND PLAY
Nothing happens in ourselves or in our culture, the author asserts, without passion or play. Are artists wired differently?
"All really creative, imaginative people also seem to develop startling expertise, which probably means they are superbly good at paying attention. Or, as I prefer to think of it, the useful application of obsession. Unfortunately, artists can obsess uselessly, too. But to be able to concentrate happily for long spells is what is required in art. It's like throwing a lavish party in just one room of a big house.
"Dispositions also get inherited, just as one inherits eye color, But if you inherent a talent, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to use it. It just increases the likelihood. And I don't think a creative gift starts like a metaphor skill or memory skill, but maybe as a slightly different way of cognitively processing, one person being more skilled at abstract thought or being born more visual. The memories that they embed reflect those specialties. What we like to do becomes the thing we do most often, and the thing we do most often becomes the thing we do best."
Which is to say, "practice makes perfect."
Friday, July 16, 2004
Your name is Kerry Edwards? That's the ticket
By Christine Badowski
July 16, 2004
If John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee for president, had picked, oh, say, Richard Gephardt as his running mate, the ticket would have been a lot less troublesome for many folks since there just aren't many Kerry Gephardts out there. But the name Kerry Edwards, well, that's a different story. A quick Internet search revealed more than 150, not including alternate spellings (such as Carrie or Keri). As we asked the real Kerry Edwardses to please stand up, here's what they reveal:
Citrus Heights, Calif.
The self-employed mortgage broker says she will use the coincidence to the advantage of her business and now has letterhead that reads, "Kerry Edwards, a household name." When she gets her hands on some campaign stickers, she intends to post them all over the office. But don't ask this Australian native (whose ex-husband was named John) how she'll vote. "As a woman with non-residential status, I've already dashed a letter off to friends telling them I have no political inclinations."
When this furniture factory worker recently went to pay his bill at the phone company, the woman at the counter asked, "Are you running for president?" Other than that, not much has changed for him in his small town. Getting a quicker restaurant reservation isn't even possible because, "this is a small town and not a reservation kind of place." Born and raised in Tupelo, he and his family have no interest in moving to D.C. anytime soon.
Mystic, Conn., located a half-hour south of Niantic, made Julia Roberts famous with the film "Mystic Pizza." Now the Democratic ticket is making the "real Kerry Edwards" of Niantic a local celebrity. She has been interviewed by a number of local radio stations and had her picture in the local paper. And the elementary special education teacher jokingly says, "I kind of expect `Hail to the Chief' to play each time I walk in the classroom." The registered Democrat admits that even if she were a Republican, the Democratic ticket would get her vote on name alone. She plans to contact the Democratic National Committee soon to volunteer and hopes her name helps their cause on education issues.
With his slow, Southern drawl, you couldn't mistake the 57-year-old farmer for a fast-talking candidate. And so far, in his small rural town, no one has. But Edwards is a Democrat through and through, claiming, "I'm a yellow dog Democrat," meaning he'd rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. He's most hoping to "get me one of those stickers as a keepsake for my [15-year-old] daughter."
When the presidential candidate first started to mention Edwards as a running mate, this Kerry Edwards, who resides in John Mellencamp's hometown, started getting humorous e-mails from co-workers. Now he's starting to get hang-ups on the phone. But the name coincidence hasn't affected much more. And the name won't change his vote. The Republican says, "It's not the name, it's the man behind the name that's important." And the name he'll pick in the voting booth will be George W. Bush.
For some it's coffee; for others it's class
By Dan Mihalopoulos and Antonio Olivo
Published July 16, 2004
Starbucks, an icon for everything from gentrification to Seattle chic to corporate dominance, means something simpler to 5th Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston.
"You are officially a neighborhood when you get a Starbucks," said Hairston, who fought to bring one to South Shore even as residents of affluent neighborhoods bemoaned the spread of the chain coffeehouses.
Finally on Friday, a Starbucks will open on the corner of 71st Street and Stony Island Avenue, the only shop of its kind in Chicago south of Hyde Park.
The familiar green awnings of Starbucks are another sign of hope on the South Side, where home values are rising. Many neighbors see the shop as a mark of newfound respect for black buying power and a harbinger for more new stores. Hairston, for one, dreams of a Target, a Best Buy and maybe a Kinko's.
But it has taken four years, the alderman's intervention and civic-minded basketball star Magic Johnson just to open one brand-name coffeehouse.
And in a part of the city where most basic shopping is still a long car or bus ride away, neighborhood advocates recognize that they still have a long road from that first grande latte to a thriving local economy.
"There's hardly any restaurants or anything to get a decent sandwich around here. It sometimes feels like we're out in the middle of nowhere," said Rev. Bobbie Hunt, pastor of Christian Brethren Church on 75th Street. Hunt said she hops on a bus downtown whenever she needs to buy clothes or home furnishings.
Once 71st Street bustled with businesses, a shopping district of dress shops and shoe stores frequented by the predominantly middle-class Irish and German families.
During the 1960s, as racial tumult and white flight spread through the city, the area became predominantly African-American. For a time, a new business community took root, but by the 1980s, drugs and crime had scared away many businesses.
Now Starbucks joins a strip of warehouses, laundries and fix-it shops along 71st Street. It faces the Moo & Oink, a huge meat and soul food market, as well as a Church's Fried Chicken. Several vacant lots advertise development opportunity to passersby.
Most chain retailers in the area are clustered to the east, in a strip mall at 71st and Jeffery Boulevard that is home to Radio Shack, Walgreens, Subway and Foot Locker.
Some boosters, including the Starbucks developer, believe the potential is much greater.
Between 60,000 and 90,000 cars travel through the intersection of 71st and Stony Island daily. The shop is close to Metra's Bryn Mawr station, while Stony Island leads to Lake Shore Drive about a mile away.
Scott Gendell and Zeb Mclaurin, the Chicago-based developers of the new Starbucks site, said retail chains should realize that the South Side is fertile ground for selling electronics, linens and other goods that residents say they customarily buy as far away as Orland Park or northwest Indiana.
The corridor along Stony Island is ripe for a change similar to the retail boom along Clybourn Avenue during the last decade, they said.
"It takes time to sell people who don't understand this market, but their ability to make money here is so obvious," Gendell said.
City officials themselves couldn't see the neighborhood as meriting more than a place to grab a burger and fries, Hairston said.
Four years ago, the freshman alderman joined Chicago Planning Department staffers at the annual International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, where retailers looking for new investments meet with city officials from around the country. Hairston said she was steered away from high-end retailers.
City officials also tried to pair her with White Castle burgers.
"I was insulted," the alderman recalled recently at her ward office on 71st Street. "It fits into the stereotype that community dollars can only be spent at fast-food restaurants."
She told officials she had much higher expectations for the corner, where an abandoned Checkers fast-food restaurant languished.
After the alderman rejected a drugstore chain, LaSalle Bank opened a branch at the corner. But there was room for one more shop.
A friend put Hairston in touch with Magic Johnson, the former Los Angeles Laker who has become a businessman focused on urban development.
Johnson's company, the Johnson Development Corp., partners with Starbucks, Loews Cineplex Entertainment and other retailers to create economic activity in historically underserved ethnic communities, according to Kimberly Thompson, the company's executive vice president.
The company has six Magic Johnson Theaters in five states. The new Starbucks will be the company's 67th coffeehouse in the country and its fifth in Chicago. The others are in Hyde Park, Uptown, Garfield Ridge and the Near West Side. ...
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
The Weekly Standard
May 3, 2004
For the Birds; New adventures in literary birding.
Robert Finch, The Weekly Standard
The Verb 'To Bird'
Sightings of an Avid Birder
by Peter Cashwell
Paul Dry, 273 pp., $14.95
The Big Year
A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
by Mark Obmascik
Free Press, 268 pp., $25
Adventures with Birds in the Suburban Wilderness
by Robert Winkler
National Geographic, 208 pp., $16
AS AN AMERICAN PASTIME, birding is hardly new. It goes back at least to the father of American bird writing and painting, a French immigrant named John James Audubon. With his 1827 Birds of America, Audubon initiated the American obsession with bird-watching (which, in pre-binocular days, was usually synonymous with bird-shooting). But birding remained a rather limited and privileged enthusiasm, and its literature consisted mostly of sentimental Victorian effusions and ponderous, heavily detailed identification manuals.
Then in 1934, a twenty-five-year-old or-nithologist from Jamestown, New York, published the first in a series of illustrated guidebooks that would revolutionize recreational bird-watching. Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds introduced the brilliantly simple principle of illustrating each species with distinguishing "field marks," indicated by arrows and accompanied by simple descriptions. His guide made bird-watching accessible to the masses--and the masses came. According to a recent study, one out of seven Americans now at least tries to identify birds, if only at backyard bird feeders. Some three million consider themselves active bird-watchers, and over two million keep "life lists," a practice that is generally recognized as the mark of a serious birder. In this country birders support a multimillion-dollar industry that supplies everything from birdseed and squirrel-proof feeders to high-tech spotting scopes and bird guides--not to mention bird-embossed stationery and T-shirts.
Apart from a few enduring classics--such as J.A. Baker's The Peregrine (1967), Peter Matthiessen's The Wind Birds (1967), and John Hay's The Bird of Light (1991)--"birding" (the active pursuit of birds, as opposed to the passive appreciation of "bird-watching") has received limited literary recognition over the years. "Birding," as a noun, is still not found in many dictionaries, nor is it recognized by my word processor's spell-checker.
In recent months, however, a flock of books about birding has appeared, each approaching the subject in deliberately literary ways. Peter Cashwell's The Verb 'To Bird': Sightings of an Avid Birder, for instance, is liberally sprinkled with literary references, and the author gives an overview of birds in myth and literature (including such howlers of bird-writing as Fear not, grand eagle, / The bay of the beagle!) before proceeding to his own adventures in birding. An English teacher living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Cashwell gives his book a faux-grammatical structure, dividing it into three sections: "Birding," "Birds," and "Birded." Chapter titles are often literary puns ("Great Unexpectations"), and their contents are summarized by a list of wry subheadings in the manner of eighteenth-century novels.
Although it contains a fair amount of detailed and often vivid description of the birds themselves, The Verb 'To Bird' is more about birding than birds, more about the behavior and psychology of birders (primarily the author) than about avian migration or mating rituals. In some chapters the birds are merely hooks for narrating a domestic drama, as in "An Owl for the Moping," in which a stressful family holiday is redeemed by the sighting of a great horned owl. Occasional trips to such places as Long Island and Iowa provide fodder for observations on regional cultural differences as much as opportunities to see new species.
All of which is to say that Cashwell has the true essayist's instinct for digression and for filtering everything through his own sensibility. His style is breezy, satiric, and self-mocking--as well as full of word play, pop-culture references, and hyperbole: a yellow-shafted flicker perching in a tree is described as "the ornithological equivalent of Pat Boone performing heavy metal songs in leather, studs, and tattoos." It's a style that seems modeled on that of humorist Dave Barry, down to the use of CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis. The result is amusing and witty, but, like Barry's, it works best in short doses. Cashwell is a little too in love with the archness of his own voice; after a while the constant punning begins to wear thin, and the references to such pop phenomena as Scooby-Doo and Faith No More sound mannered and dated.
More troubling, the author's determination to write in a high-octane style often leads him to strain after effect. In "The Cardinal Sin," for example, he constructs an entire chapter around a protracted search to find out "Why is the cardinal called the cardinal?" When he finally stumbles serendipitously on the answer (the cardinal was first given that name by the early French Catholic explorer LaSalle), he claims a life lesson drawn from birding skills: "I had learned much more than the origin of a single name. I had learned that the nature of birding is far more universal, far closer to the path of wisdom, than I had ever dreamed." The lesson seems more a literary effect than a genuine revelation.
It's too bad that The Verb 'To Bird' is so frequently overwritten, for the style tends to overwhelm the book's virtues. Cashwell's descriptions are most effective when most concise. Regarding the brilliant coloration of the painted bunting, he comments, "When you blink, it leaves an afterimage." When his comparisons are based in felt experience rather than verbal cleverness, they are often quite evocative. "If pelicans were drivers, they'd own huge, rectangular American luxury cars with plush interiors," he writes, and the passage goes on to convey wonderfully the appearance of untroubled serenity these magnificent birds have in flight.
Some of his chapters are genuinely moving, such as "Laughing at Broken Hammers," a meditation on the enduring legend of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The ivorybill, a denizen of old-growth Southern swamp-forests, has not been reliably sighted for several decades and is presumed extinct. Despite intense and fruitless searches for the bird, birders continue to hope the species survives somewhere, if only because its nonexistence cannot be conclusively proven.
Even the author is subject to such phantasms of desire as he recounts an ambiguous sighting of a large woodpecker in a South Carolina swamp that may, just may, have been an ivorybill. For once, his pathos and comparisons seem richly earned, and he expresses a universal lesson about human longing in the shape of a bird. ...
Robert Finch is the author of five collections of essays, most recently Death of a Hornet and Other Cape Cod Essays, and is coeditor of The Norton Book of Nature Writing.
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
I did the reporting for this story over several months in 2002 for the Chicago Tribune. The story was eventually rejected by the features department for being too much like a news report (feature-type flourishes, I found, can be hard to come by when everyone close to an upcoming trial isn't allowed to comment). Although I lacked much appetite to pry into this family's personal problems, I did find the story to be a reminder of the ways that human relationships can go wrong in a broken world. (even in the most comfortable of suburbs). For the verdict in the trial, go to the bottom of the article.
The man in the car
By Nathan Bierma
January 6, 2003
After 29 years, four children, and two divorce filings he talked his wife out of, Chicago dentist Kerry Voit has finally filed for divorce. He says he's had it. There was the time his wife Sharon allegedly struck him with a dog bone. The time eight squad cars swarmed their house in the tiny suburban village of Golf eight years ago in response to a domestic disturbance call. And finally, the last straw: the time Sharon allegedly tried to hire a hit man to kill him.
Turns out the hit man was an undercover cop, and nothing has been the same since. Sharon, 51, has spent the last two and half years in jail, while Kerry, 53, lives with three of his daughters (one is now married) in the family's home, waiting for her trial so he can finalize the divorce. As the trial begins today, neighbors and family will be scratching their heads over what went so terribly wrong in the Voit house.
You can’t find a smaller, quieter, leafier suburb than Golf, the lush village north of Chicago. Railroad baron Albert J. Earling put Golf on the map in the early 20th Century by ordering his trains stop there so he could play golf at what is now Glenview Country Club. Today, with a population of a few hundred, and without any stores, mailboxes, or gas stations, Golf is home to little
more than the stately red brick colonial building that houses the Western Golf Association, which runs the PGA Western Open, the annual professional golf tournament played in Lemont, Ill.
In this tranquil setting—-a village with no annual crime rate-—prosecutors say Sharon Voit plotted her husband’s demise. Kerry Voit told investigators the last ten years of his marriage were "extremely strained." During that time Sharon twice filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences,” but was convinced by Kerry to relent.
Neighbors first noticed the couple’s discord on the sweltering summer night of July 13, 1995, when several Cook County Sheriff squad cars stormed the Voits’ brown frame house in Golf, responding to a domestic disturbance call. Stunned to see so many police invade their village, neighbors joked that the cops were looking for an excuse to get indoors in the midst of a record heat wave. But according
to police reports, the Voits’ air conditioning was not working when they returned home from a visit with friends.
As the reports relate, at about 10 p.m., Kerry told Sharon he wanted to sleep in the den where it was cooler, and turned off the television program she was watching in that room. An argument ensued, and it turned violent. Sharon scratched Kerry’s wrists and bruised his left calf. He struck her in the left eye. She went next door to a neighbor’s house to call the police.
Three of the couple’s daughters witnessed the incident, according to police
reports, which say that [name], 11 years old at the time, took her father’s side and insisted she go with him to his mother’s that night. The twins, [name] and [name], then age 8,reportedly sided with their mother. Although neither Voit wished to file
a complaint at the time, the police persuaded Kerry to leave for 72 hours, and Kerry moved in with his mother in Harwood Heights, beginning a period of time neighbors said they didn’t know when he was living at the home and when he wasn’t.
Sharon was back at the neighbor's house the next day, and took a call from Kerry. “She said something in this little girl voice: ‘You hit me, you hurt me,’” the neighbor said. "We were shocked. We had noticed that Kerry seemed to change. I can't describe it. He just was so funny, we were always laughing around him.
"He would be gone two or three weeks maybe, and then he came back ...and then it just became a revolving door," the neighbor said. "He'd get mad and he'd leave. One day he'd be over there and the next day he wasn't. It was very sad to see what had been a close-knit
family begin to deteriorate."
Meanwhile, Kerry kept his successful dentist practice in the Loop. "He has a lot of patients who swear by him," said another neighbor. One longtime patient described Voit as a kind, generous man who has kept a professional demeanor throughout the turmoil of his personal life. The patient said the low turnover on
Voit's staff and the dentist's willingness to make emergency out-of-hours appointments illustrate his professional pedigree.
"He definitely has an interest with people when you're there," the patient said. "It's not just like you’re a number in the chair, he's a warm person."
The subject of his imprisoned wife, the patient said, doesn't come up much at work, since the news of her arrest hit the papers two years ago. "He said it's been a lot more trying to take care of the office and take care of the girls at the same time," the patient said. "For someone to put that kind of mark on you, for him to be holding it together is amazing."
Sharon continued to manage the busy life of her daughters, all of whom were avid figure skaters.
"Even when she only had two [daughters skating] they'd get up at 5:30 in the morning," her neighbor said. "She was going all day long, picking them up.”
It was the girls’ skating coach, Robin Petrowsky-Poe, who first prompted Kerry to call the police about his wife. According to police reports, on Sunday, March 12, 2000, Kerry convened a dinner at a Glenview restaurant to discuss his daughters’ skating future.
Sharon was not invited. As the reports relate, Kerry was asked if his wife had mental problems. At that point, Petrowsky-Poe said that the week before, Sharon had talked to her about hiring a hit man. Another member of the party, Matthew Georgopolous, who neighbors and the defense said had become close to the family, occasionally sleeping at the Voits’ house and accompanying
the daughters on out-of-state skating tournaments, said that Sharon “always asks me that too.” That week, Kerry called the police and said he believed his wife may be trying to kill him.
By Thursday, March 16, Sharon received a phone call from an anonymous man saying he heard she had a problem and that they should meet. The caller refused to say who told him to call her or what the subject of the meeting would be, according to the defense. Sharon suggested meeting in a parking lot in order not to be alone with the caller. The defense says that because the caller used Sharon’s nickname, “Sherry,” which only her closest friends used, she believed the man was
responding to an inquiry she had made to a friend about finding a divorce
Early in the afternoon of Friday, March 17, in the parking lot of the Jewel at 16 S. Waukegan Road in Glenview, an undercover officer found Sharon according to the description of her car and got in the passenger seat. Unknown to Sharon, he was wearing
a hidden microphone that recorded the conversation onto a cassette tape.
“Well?” the officer said to begin the conversation. Sharon replied, “It’s pretty bad.” The officer later said, “Let me say this: Your problems are your problems. I’ll solve them if you want it done, plain and simple.” Said Sharon: “It’s gotta be done.”
According to the defense, at this point Sharon could still have believed that she was pursuing a divorce, since neither party had said the word “hit man, kill, murder, or dead.” Sharon had not brought any money or personal items of her husband’s, and at times made intentionally vague or even false statements about his whereabouts and plans. At one point she tells the officer, “Part of me wants him to
get help so it will be better.”
But the prosecution will argue that crucial exchanges suggest Sharon knew what she was getting into. The officer says, “I’m a Vietnam veteran, the government pays me to kill people.” When he proceeds to ask, “Is there anything particular you want done?” Sharon replies, “I just want to have the misery finished. I can’t take it anymore.”
After Sharon leaves to withdraw cash for the transaction, the officer prompts her again: “Do you want it done a certain way? Do you want the remains back?” Says Sharon: “That would be good.”
Sharon gave the officer $600 cash as a down payment on the $7,000 sum they agreed upon, along with a picture of her husband and his car keys. After the man left, just as Sharon was about to pull out, squad cars approached and pinned her car in. She was
arrested and charged with solicitation of murder for hire, punishable by 20 to 40 years in prison. Investigators say Sharon signed a written confession on the day of her arrest that acknowledges the transaction.
Bond was set at $10 million—more, a neighbor loyal to Sharon complained, than O.J. Simpson or the Unabomber. The neighbor said Sharon tells her, in correspondence from jail, that she met the man to try to get a divorce.
“She’s a very intelligent person, a superb golfer,” the neighbor said. “I thought [jail] would drive her crazy, but she’s kind of rolling with the punches.
"The guards are very supportive. They tell her … she’s not the type of person that should be there—she’s a nice person.”
For prosecutors, the case will center on the tape and witnesses who testify that Sharon told them of her intent to hire a hit man to kill her husband.
“The whole point of the case,” said state attorney Russell Baker, “is did she or did she not meet with a hit man, whether or not he was a police officer, to solicit murder for hire for her husband, and she did. It’s all on tape. It doesn’t get [easier] than that. This trial will take one week.”
The defense will try an entrapment defense, arguing that Sharon Voit was not predisposed to the crime, did not know whom she was meeting with, and was unduly influenced by the officer to go through with the transaction.
As the arguments proceed, neighbors will wonder how two Chicago high school sweethearts ended up in such a bizarre trial.
"They were such a loving couple," said their next-door neighbor. "They were just so proud of each other. He talked about what a good cook and good golfer she was, she was proud of what a good dentist he was. As time goes by I guess you can't maintain that forever.”
Chicago Tribune, 01/10/03: A jury deliberated for less than five hours Thursday before finding a north suburban mother of four guilty of trying to hire someone to kill her husband. Sharon Voit, 51, showed little emotion as the verdict was read in Cook County Circuit Court in Skokie. ...
Chicago Tribune, 03/10/03: A woman was sentenced Tuesday to 23 years in prison for trying to hire an undercover police officer to kill her husband. Sharon Voit, 51, of Golf was convicted in January of solicitation of murder for hire. ...
I covered the inaugural season of the Grand Rapids Force in the U.S. Professional Volleyball League for The Grand Rapids Press. I submitted this story to Grand Rapids magazine in October 2002, but it was cancelled when the USPV suffered the sudden pullout of key investors and went belly-up before its second season.
Tour de Force
By Nathan Bierma
Grand Rapids' minor league sports boom was about dreams-dreams of crowds, dreams of a downtown rebirth, dreams of seeing sports stars in person. The sudden emergence of the Hoops, Whitecaps, Griffins and Rampage provided pro sports heroes for local boys. But the dream was limited; the behemoth hockey players and hoopsters who landed in Grand Rapids made the local sports scene a decidedly male domain.
So what happened last winter at the DeltaPlex was a quiet but dramatic revolution in the local sports landscape. The arrival of the Grand Rapids Force, a professional women's volleyball team, established a new frontier for local girls who have been playing playing sports in striking numbers but had no league to claim as their own. Now the dream has doubled.
The rallying cry of the United States Professional Volleyball League as it launched in four cities (the others were Chicago, St. Louis, and Rochester, Minn.) was its slogan: "It's never been played like this before." It had multiple meanings. One was the quality of play--a stunning display of muscular and graceful women rifling volleyballs at highway speeds. Volleyball is a rewarding spectator sport, an intriguing combination of raw power and subtle deception, thunderous smashes and desperate digs.
But the tagline also suggested an innovative approach to launching a sports league. The Force was the first team in the area to name a target audience other than the beer demographic of 18- to 34-year-old males--its league was aimed explicitly at the post-Title IX group of young girls age 12 to 20, those with Mia Hamm posters on their walls and cleats in their closets but no sports heroes they could shake hands with. And while most fans admire sports stars from a distance, the USPV promoted a more relational approach, promoting its players as personal role models and assigning some to tutor local high school volleyball teams.
The Force struck a chord with female fans, judging by the crowds of girls who lined up at the team’s postgame autograph table, and the team’s outreach seemed to mean just as much to the players.
"More than anything it was how the girls looked at you," said Christy Chapman, a middle blocker on the Force. "They were so excited. Before, they didn't have anything like this."
“That was one of my favorite parts of playing for the Grand Rapids Force-meeting little girls, seeing their excitement about volleyball,” said Val Sterk, the team’s floor leader and leading scorer with 141 kills and 25 blocks during the regular season. “I remember when I was a little kid, [I didn’t] have role models like this.”
Neither did Linsey Taatjes and Molly Young, two all-state volleyball players for Forest Hills Northern High School, although it didn’t stop them from winning a state championship last spring. Their team knew something about dreams, and they celebrated their title by taking in a Force match. In fact, on most nights, high schools from around the area and as far north as Traverse City filled the DeltaPlex, forming colored blocks in the stands with their school shirts.
"It's good to have this here, so volleyball players like us have someone to look up to," Young said. "It's exciting to have somebody who can be a role model."
"We want to be where they are," said Taatjes.
Maybe 9-year-old MacKenzie Tomasick will too. Unlike the high schoolers, some of her first personal glimpses of local sports will be of women, and maybe now she’ll welcome an adolescent growth spurt. That was the idea, anyway, according to her mother Tina, who took her to a playoff match last April and marched her to the autograph table afterwards.
"They say she's going to be 6-foot, so I went here to have some role models for height," Tina said.
This season, the Force is aiming to succeed not just as a symbol of women’s athletics in the area, but as a viable business. One year into its history, the Force has become the model unit of the fledgling USPV after leading the league in attendance last season. In a winter in which both the Hoops and Griffins saw their attendance slide, the Force averaged 2,000 fans per match, despite having mostly weeknight matches. This year the schedule calls for more weekend contests, which could fill their 3,800-seat arena.
While Year One was meant to put the Force on the map, this season the team will look to compete as an entertainment alternative in the minds of Grand Rapidians. The Force succeeded in forming a core group of volleyball enthusiasts last season, but now the team wants to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Griffins when the talk turns to the local sports scene.
“Last year it was a novelty,” said assistant general manager Marcy Boerema. “But it’s on people’s radar now. … Hopefully it becomes more of an entertainment option.”
“We’ve had a good start in the process of being recognized in the same right as the Griffins and Whitecaps and Rampage,” said Greg Rogers, former sales director for DP Fox, which owns the Griffins and Rampage. “I think we still have a ways to go to the point where the average person in Grand Rapids recognizes us.”
The USPV, which is based in Chicago, says it has strong enough financial footing from corporate investors to last at least until the 2004 Olympics, when it hopes to get a boost by showcasing its stars on the USA volleyball team. This summer the league pulled the plug on plans to immediately expand to eight teams, but still hopes to reach beyond the Midwest after this season.
In the meantime, the Force hopes to improve on its fortune on the court, where last season it went 7-15. The team received a morale boost by ending on its finest performance, a hard-fought first round playoff series it narrowly lost to eventual champion Minnesota, against whom it opens this season on the road January 12. The Force will be anchored by three returning standouts-Sterk, solid setter Jen Flynn, who helped lead Team USA to a silver medal at this summer’s world championships, and spunky outside hitter Betsy Spicer, who was leading the Force in kills before an injury late last season.
More importantly to the Force, the franchise will cultivate the connection it made with the community. The team will expand its Adopt-A-Player program, which assigns players to work as assistant coaches with area high school teams, and will offer clinics throughout the season for beginning and advanced players. The Force's front office will work with sports marketing classes in local high schools to teach what it means to find a niche in a thriving sports market like Grand Rapids.
But despite its willingness to give marketing advice, the Force may be the local sports team that thinks the least about sports and the most about relationships in the community. Last season the team coordinated with the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Habitat for Humanity, and various retirement homes, and will keep building its community presence this season through its players’ charisma--their sincerity and enthusiasm for making appearances in the area.
“When we do make personal appearances, we don’t just go and stand there, but we do something that connects with people,” Boerema said. “When you talk with Val [Sterk], you feel that she cares about you, she makes that personal connection with people. It’s not, She’s an athlete, she won’t care about me two days from now.”
“Volleyball is a good way to draw people in and interact with people,” Sterk said. “I see it as a good platform that gives us the opportunity to make some kind of impact in the community and in kids’ lives. It gives them the opportunity to dream bigger, set some goals for themselves, and have the dream to play professionally someday.”
Monday, July 12, 2004
Pos Batters Edit Opp Status H/AB R HR RBI SB AVG
C J. López (Bal - C) 106/330 45 12 42 0 .321
1B D. Lee (ChC - 1B) 96/316 42 12 49 6 .304
2B M. Loretta (SD - 2B) 112/347 60 8 36 2 .323
3B V. Castilla (Col - 3B) 84/309 47 16 71 0 .272
SS R. AuriliaNA (Sea - SS) 63/261 27 4 28 1 .241
OF L. González (Ari - LF) 86/319 61 15 43 2 .270
OF S. Podsednik (Mil - CF) 89/352 55 9 26 34 .253
OF T. Nixon (Bos - RF) 15/65 10 3 9 0 .231
Util A. Huff (TB - 1B,3B,RF,DH) 90/334 47 13 52 3 .269
Util D. Young (Det - 3B,LF,DH) 38/129 24 6 21 0 .295
BN J. Conine (Fla - 1B,LF) 68/266 27 6 33 3 .256
BN D. Mientkiewicz (Min - 1B) 67/275 34 5 23 2 .244
BN D. Erstad (Ana - 1B,CF) 64/216 33 2 29 9 .296
Pos Pitchers Edit Opp Status IP W SV K ERA WHIP
SP M. Prior (ChC - SP) 36.0 2 0 40 4.00 1.25
SP D. Lowe (Bos - SP) 93.2 7 0 46 5.57 1.65
RP W. Álvarez (LA - SP,RP) 65.2 3 1 54 3.56 1.07
RP K. Farnsworth (ChC - RP) 40.1 3 0 46 3.35 1.29
P R. Ortiz (Atl - SP) 115.2 10 0 89 3.58 1.44
P B. Penny (Fla - SP) 115.1 8 0 99 3.20 1.23
P T. OhkaDL (Mon - SP) 71.2 3 0 34 3.01 1.35
BN W. Williams (StL - SP) 103.1 6 0 64 4.09 1.40
BN D. Riske (Cle - RP) 43.2 4 4 50 4.12 1.47
Friday, July 02, 2004
Traditional knowledge helps point way for new science
CanWest News Service
Thursday, February 19, 2004
A FIVE-PART SERIES
In a joint project of The Journal and Global Television, CanWest reporter Nathan VanderKlippe travelled to the Canadian research ship Amundsen in the ice of Franklin Bay, N.W.T.
- TODAY: Researchers rely on Inuit know-how. ON GLOBAL TV at 5:30 p.m.: Life abounds in and under the Arctic ice.
- - -
ABOARD THE CCGS AMUNDSEN - It's late in the morning but the northern lights are still playing in the sky as Francis Ruben walks down a precipitous gangplank onto the frozen waters of Franklin Bay.
Dressed in heavily insulated military gear and a snow-white balaclava against the -34 C cold, Ruben makes his way alongside the hulking port side of the icebreaker Amundsen to a neatly assembled group of snowmobiles.
In his mittened hands he carries a hair dryer. Plugging the dryer in, he swings open the front cover on one of the snowmobiles and points the dryer at the engine block.
A few minutes later, he tugs on the pull-cord. The snowmobile roars to life. He takes the hair dryer to the next in line.
An Inuvialuit elder from Paulatuk, Ruben is one of several wildlife observers on rotating duty aboard the Amundsen, Canada's first icebreaker dedicated to scientific research.
The newly christened ship is spending the winter parked in the thick sea ice of Franklin Bay, about 2,000 kilometres north of Edmonton.
That places it right in the backyard of Paulatuk, a town of 300 located 120 kilometres to the southeast.
Although it's been 12 years since Ruben was last out on the ice, it's an area he knows well: "It's cold and it's nice being on home ground."
As scientific interest in the North has grown, so too has the realization that traditional knowledge is an important resource in understanding the land and the changes it is undergoing.
The Inuit have inhabited this land for thousands of years. Through oral traditions passed on by elders they have developed a detailed insight into the Arctic and the plants and animals that inhabit the region.
Wildlife observers like Ruben are paid to monitor for dangerous wildlife and to aid researchers with their knowledge.
As he helps scientists haul equipment for an insulated tent, Ruben points to a spot on the distant cliffs on the horizon, a place known as the Smoking Hills, where seams of coal have been smouldering for centuries.
"It's not foggy but you know just like when you have a little fire there's a little mist," Ruben said. "It's the only one recorded around this country, anywhere in Canada."
"We're working in an environment where we're foreigners, where we're very naive," said Tim Papakyriakou, a University of Manitoba researcher studying greenhouse gases in the Arctic. "(The Inuit) have such an intuitive sense for the environment that certainly we don't have."
Traditional knowledge and Inuit collaboration are expected to play a vital role in Arcticnet, an ambitious new Arctic research program that will use the Amundsen to study the Arctic's climate, health and society over the next four years, and perhaps into the next decade.
"It's to have some integration of Inuit expertise and knowledge into what we're doing," said Louis Fortier, the project manager for Arcticnet. "If we're looking for some kind of fish and how to catch it, they will know about it."
Ruben is a walking guidebook to living and surviving in the Arctic. His hair dryer trick saved long minutes of arm-wrenching attempts to cold-start research snowmobiles.
As he works, he explains the surroundings to the researchers and Coast Guard crew; some are seeing the sea ice and barrenlands for the first time.
Each day Ruben is assigned to accompany scientists who travel from the ship to ice research camps located as much as 10 kilometres away. A rifle slung across his back for protection against polar bears, he nimbly guides his snowmobile through dense fields of ice blocks heaved up by the sea.
His eyes continually scan the horizon looking for polar bears. At this time of year, the bears are on the move, he said, and can amble over as much as 80 kilometres of ice in a single day. Ruben can read the bear's tracks to tell the gender and size of the animal.
"When they make a step they're usually four feet from one step to the next," he said.
"But the smaller bears, the eight-footers, they're about three feet from touch to tip. So it's quite tricky sometimes."
Previous wildlife observers have had to use their snowmobiles to chase polar bears away from researchers, who are thankful they haven't had to resort to using their own rifles in self-defence. In this part of the world it takes less paperwork to account for a dead human than for a dead bear.
Although he has hunted polar bears before, Ruben is looking forward to seeing one just so he can take photographs.
A carver who lives off the proceeds of his art, he says working outdoors is a chance to reconnect with the land.
"Out on the land I get myself reacquainted with reality again," he said.
"When I go back to town I can readjust myself to that in an instant. But readjusting yourself out on the land takes time."
It's also a chance to dig into the wealth of knowledge found in the researchers on the ship.
"What I'm really interested about is what they find underwater," he said.
"Most of us northerners don't really have the picture yet about what's under the water and what's keeping all the seals alive and the fish. So to us it's pretty important.
"When I get home I'm going to have a presentation to the hunters' and trappers' association on what I learned. I'm sure they'll be surprised."
Francis Ruben, wildlife observer with a scientific expedition, starts a snowmobile on the frozen waters of Franklin Bay.
CREDIT: Nathan VanderKlippe, The Journal
Christina Blouw rolls a strip of snow fencing on the ice of Franklin Bay. The fencing is being used in a number of experiments on the sea ice.
CREDIT: Nathan VanderKlippe, The Journal
Arctic research makes greenhouse-gas find
Scientist shocked at rate northern ice draws down carbon dioxide from atmosphere
CanWest News Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
THE NEW ARCTIC EXPLORERS
A five-part series
In a joint project of The Journal and Global Television, CanWest reporter Nathan VanderKlippe travelled to the Canadian research ship Amundsen amid the ice of Franklin Bay, N.W.T.
TODAY: How arctic ice may cool global warming. ON GLOBAL TV at 6 p.m.: Talking to the scientists.
- Wednesday: Links to the search for life on other planets.
- Thursday: Researchers rely on Inuit know-how.
- - -
ABOARD THE CCGS AMUNDSEN - When Tim Papakyriakou first saw the data he had collected high in the Canadian Arctic near Cornwallis Island, he refused to believe them.
After all, what he was discovering flew in the face of everything science had hypothesized. If the results were true, they could radically alter science's understanding of how the Arctic Ocean fits into the world's climate cycles.
Papakyriakou is a professor of environmental science at the University of Manitoba. He is studying what is called the "carbon flux," or how greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide travel between the air and the water -- and, in the Arctic, ice.
Much like tropical rainforests, the world's oceans are teeming with life that depends on carbon dioxide, a worrisome greenhouse gas that humans produce in huge volumes through the burning of fossil fuels.
Rainforests draw the gas out of the air, then store it away -- effectively removing it from the atmosphere.
Land-based plants suck down about a third of the human-produced carbon dioxide in the air, and the ocean removes another third.
The Arctic Ocean is a different question. A huge body of water that covers the top of the northern hemisphere, half of the ocean remains frozen year-round; the other half melts only for a brief period during summer and fall. For decades, scientists thought the crust of ice prevented the water below from exchanging gas with the atmosphere -- the ice was simply too thick and too solid to let anything through.
But when Papakyriakou began gathering his results, he was astonished to find the complete opposite: it appeared that carbon dioxide was actually slipping into the solid ice at a dramatic pace.
His results, which have not yet been published, showed that the ice-bound Arctic Ocean he was sampling is actually more effective than the North Atlantic at absorbing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Even more striking, data show that the frozen waters are actually drawing down carbon at "roughly 50 to 60 per cent of what you'd expect over a temperate wetland or marsh during its growing season," he said.
Oddly enough, the carbon dioxide didn't look like it was going into the ocean. It seemed to be disappearing into the ice itself. Recent studies had showed that bacteria and phytoplankton actually live inside the ice layer -- perhaps, he surmised, they were using up the gas.
"We don't know whether it was representative or a fluke," said Lisa Miller, a research scientist at the Sydney, B.C., Institute of Ocean Sciences, who collected the data with Papakyriakou.
"If what we saw was representative of what's really going on around the Arctic, it has astounding implications.
"It means those estimates about how much of the atmospheric carbon dioxide the ocean absorbs are way off."
Because more study is required to verify the results, Papakyriakou and a graduate student, Owen Owens, came aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen. The vessel is a specially outfitted research ship that has been frozen into the water of Franklin Bay, about 2,000 kilometres north of Edmonton, for the winter.
Using gas chambers, water samples, silicone tubing embedded in the ice and syringes full of air, they are measuring the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and throughout the ice. The aim is to figure out where the carbon dioxide goes and what it is being used for.
The problem is, Arctic ice is disappearing -- and quickly. Studies have shown that ice thickness in the Arctic has dropped by 40 per cent in the past 30 years, while total ice cover is disappearing at a rate of about 34,000 square kilometres a decade. By 2050, some scientists predict, the entire Arctic will be ice-free during the summer. Loss of ice suddenly becomes much more problematic if that ice is actually helping to filter greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Less ice could mean less drawdown of carbon dioxide, leaving more in the air where it can cause a
spiralling problem of higher Arctic temperatures.
"That will just make our (global warming) problem worse," said Owens.
Here is where today's science becomes guesswork, however. Less ice could actually be better. Scientists still know very little about how the Arctic Ocean processes carbon, and a competing theory holds that open water could actually pick up more greenhouse gases.
If human activity is turning "much of the Arctic into a polynya (a body of water that doesn't freeze in winter), then the Arctic or polar seas may
become much more effective at removing the atmospheric carbon than they currently are," Papakyriakou said.
"There's lots of different scenarios which may come into being and there's no way you can anticipate ... what may happen in the future if you don't understand how those processes operate under current conditions," he said.
"There are really no numbers (on carbon exchange) for the polar seas at this point and this is something that we're trying very hard to fix.
"We're heading into a very interesting stage of polar science," he said.
Northern scientist Owen Owens
Mike Suitor, a graduate student at the University of Calgary, drills holes into the metre-thick ice on Franklin Bay, N.W.T., as part of an Arctic research project.
CREDIT: Nathan Vanderklippe, Canwest News Service
Owen Owens, a master's student from Manitoba, fishes for water samples from Franklin Bay to study the Arctic Ocean's ability to suck greenhouse gases from the air through a thick layer of ice. Researchers are working from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen, which has been frozen into the ice as a research platform.
CREDIT: Nathan Vanderklippe, Canwest News Service