Under A White Sky / Under A White Sky

Under A White Sky: The Nature of The Future 

by Elizabeth Kolbert 

Summary by Inday Ransom

1- Down the River

  The Chicago River used to be a river of muck, sewage and trash. The sewage from the river would then flow into Lake Michigan—the city’s sole source of drinking water. Waterborne disease outbreaks, such as cholera and typhoid, were very common.

The disastrous effects caused by human nature came to a halt when Chicago built the Sanitary and Ship Canal at the end of the nineteenth century, becoming fully functional in the early twentieth century. It shifted the Chicago River to drain into the Des Plaines River, and from there into the Illinoise, then the Mississippi, ending in the Gulf of Mexico, instead of Lake Michigan. “The reversal of the Chicago was the biggest public works project of its time, a textbook example of what used to be called, without irony, the control of nature.” (pg. 5).  

An uplifting event that would soon show the world how shaping nature can cause more harm than good. Although it helped the City of Chicago and Lake Michigan, it also upended the hydrology of nearly two-thirds of the United States. This had devastating ecological and financial effects, which forced new waves of costly interventions. 

Including electric barriers to bar the Asian carp from entering the lakes. Asian carp are a very “good” invasive species, reproducing and moving quickly, consuming all they can on their way. The Asian carp are another example of how controlling nature can cause detrimental effects. They were originally introduced to eat invasive aquatic weeds, when they were accidentally released in the 1960s, they quickly rose to make up three-quarters of fish biomass in some waterways. They have pushed freshwater mollusks to the brink of extinction, and are close to endangering native species by eating their food sources. The Chicago Corps have since been electrifying the water to deter or kill these fish and are now trying to reimpose “hydraulic separation” as a method to keep the fish out of the Great Lakes, but this costs up to $18 billion, and takes nearly twenty five years to complete.


In the southeasternmost tip of Louisiana lies the Plaquemines Parish. This is where Chicago’s flotsam and jetsam release into the sea. Unfortunately, today the parish is sinking 100 yards of land every hour and a half, making it a “land-loss crisis”, an effect of a man-made disaster. For millions of years the Mississippi River has been transferring sediment into Louisiana—nearly four hundred million tons annually since its purchase in 1803. Since interventions on the Mississippi have mainly been for the benefit of humans, the natural benefits have been mainly lost. 

A group of engineers were tasked with creating a model of the delta as a relief map meant to simulate land loss, sea-level rise and strategies. Using gates and a spillway as a way to divert floods from entering New Orleans. It proved successful, allowing for fresh water and sediment to still travel without damaging the city.   

Another intervention to repair land-loss is called BA-39, best described as a drill that would take out sediment and transfer it to a shallow basin in Barataria Bay. But to keep up with the sheer amount of land loss, the state would have to create a new BA-39 every nine days. Sadly, there still is no guarantee that this will solve coastal damage, even with intervention efforts, the new sediment is always being washed away. 


Human intervention has transformed most of Earth’s habitable land. Most major rivers have been controlled for our benefit, the usage of fertilizer plants and legumes produce more nitrogen than all ecosystems combined, and our machines emit one hundred times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes. We have become the main driver of extinction and speciation, with the main lesson of this book being: be careful what you wish for

2- Into the Wild 

Devils Hole, located at the edge of Death Valley in Nevada, holds one of the most mysterious ecosystems in the world. In such an uninhabitable location lies a natural aquifer with a specific species of fish called pupfish, or Devils Hole pupfish. One ecologist called the fish a “beautiful enigma.” The pool itself is mysterious, no one knows for sure how deep it is, and how the fish got there in the first place. Whatever the answer may be, scientists do know that this site must be protected, hence its introduction into the National Parks. 

Due to human intervention again, from advanced technologies, expansion and climate change, the pupfish population dwindled in 2006, with only thirty-eight recorded. In 2013, scientists created a mock Devils Hole to try to get the pupfish to reproduce. They added everything from the shape of the rocks in the pool, to the natural wildlife found. They would unfortunately find that it’s much easier to destroy an ecosystem than grow one. 

The beetles that were found in the real Devils Hole were added to the mock hole only for them to do far better than in nature. The beetles started reproducing faster, and soon developed a “taste” for pupfish. However, the pupfish did live twice as long in their new tank. But in the process it became a “Stockholm species,” reliant on conservation to survive. 


In the 1980s more than half of Jamaica’s coral reefs were dying. The main reed builders, staghorn and elkhorn, were sickened by the white-band disease. Climate change is pushing the reefs into extinction everywhere. In 1998, a global bleaching event occurred, caused by a rise in ocean temperatures, and killed more than fifteen percent of corals. This happened again in 2010, then in 2014 for nearly three years. 

Ruth Gates and her colleagues would propose a “super-coral” plan: to clean the seabed and help the coral reproduction process. Van Oppen, who also works with Gates, called a team to raise coral in tanks. Thankfully, tank-raised coral are still reproductively in sync as their ocean counterparts. This way their team can speed up the process of evolution. More intervention must be needed for these reefs to survive, and if these reefs can survive, so will many aquatic species that are dependent on these reefs. 


Gene-editing is showing promising results in ecological intervention. In one experiment using CRISPR, scientists were able to take the gene out of cane toads that allow them to secrete fatal poison to animals. Instead, they made the poison less harmful, when an animal such as a bird eats, or tries to eat the toad, they will become sick and learn not to eat them again. This way the populations of animals that eat these toads will not die off. Gene-editing is being conducted in labs around the world, and will hopefully offer some viable solutions for plant and animal species.  

3- Up in the Air 

Climeworks is a company that offers carbon storage to their customers. It involves injecting CO2 half a mile into the ground, where the gas can solidify into rock. Rocks have been known to store CO2, in fact, rocks are the biggest reservoirs of carbon on earth. Unfortunately, it takes hundreds of thousands of years for carbon dioxide to weather into the earth, a process called chemical weathering. Scientists today are finding ways to speed up this process by capturing and heating CO2, then mixing it into a chemical mixture that can then be injected. The best medium for this are basaltic rocks. 

Scientists also believe a mixture of reforestation and underground injections will yield the best results. This technique is called BECCS, “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.” However, darker trees would be a problem since they would absorb more energy, still contributing to climate change. A solution could be using CRISPR to edit lighter-colored trees that can reflect vast amounts of energy. 


Volcanic eruptions release sulfuric aerosols into the stratosphere, reflecting sunlight thus causing earth’s climate to cool down. A possible method is to mimic a volcanic eruption by putting a plethora of reflective particles into the stratosphere. “The premise behind solar geoengineering—or, as it’s sometimes more soothingly called, “solar radiation management”—is that if volcanoes can cool the world, people can, too.” (pg. 168). Temperatures would stop rising and the disastrous effects of climate change will be weakened or completely averted. One interesting aspect of this is that the color of the sky would change. White would replace blue. It would be very similar to large volcanic eruptions, beautiful sunsets, and a white sky. 

One suggested material was diamonds. This method of course has many problems, one would be that the particles would come back down, and inhaling diamond dust would cause harm. The solution they created was to develop an airbus that could replenish aerosols, being named Stratospheric Aerosol Injection Lofter, or SAIL. This project would cost around $2.5 billion, and $20 billion every decade. Solar engineering is costly, but so is the use of fossil fuels. It is necessary for humans to learn how to properly manipulate our atmosphere. “This has been a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” (pg. 200).