Longreads Best of 2019: Science and Nature

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science and nature.

Deborah Blum
Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and publisher of Undark magazine.

‘We Have Fire Everywhere’ (Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine)

Our Secret Delta (Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, The Post and Courier)

One of the most interesting trends in climate change reporting is the way writers now quietly and deftly weave its effects into the background of natural disaster stories, from the rapid intensification of hurricanes in the Atlantic to the increasingly explosive wildfires in the west. I’d like to pay tribute to two outstanding examples of this in the past year.

One is environmental writer Jon Mooallem’s stunning narrative portrait of last year’s devastating Camp Fire in northern California, which killed at least 85 people, burned through nearly 240 square miles, and destroyed almost 20,000 buildings including almost all of the small, wooded town of Paradise. Mooallem’s story “We Have Fire Everywhere” is a vivid, terrifying, edge-of-your seat reconstruction of desperate attempts to escape a literal inferno. It moves so beautifully and is so well-paced that you almost don’t realize that he’s also slipping in a lot of very smart fire science, exploring the ways in which climate change is making wildfires exponentially more dangerous. Describing one harrowing moment in a line of burning cars, he writes, “Fisher wasn’t just trapped in a car; she was trapped in the 21st century.”

The other is “Our Secret Delta,” a haunting exploration of South Carolina’s threatened Santee River delta, published this September in the Charleston paper, The Post and Courier. It’s a real pleasure in these days when we worry so much about the fate of local journalism to see this paper shine in so many important ways. This project, led by Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, is visually gorgeous and told with the grace of an old-time Southern story, allowing the delta, its history and culture, its fragile waters, to gradually unspool like the winding path of a river itself. The writers create a memorable portrait of an old and essential ecosystem under new threats. Perhaps the most ominous threat is the rise of coastal waters as they reshape the state, yet another reminder that climate change stalks our present as well as our future.

Elizabeth Rush
Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and instructor of creative nonfiction at Brown University.

Climate Signs (Emily Raboteau, The New York Review of Books)

When Emily Raboteau’s son becomes obsessed with extreme weather events after a family outing to the “Nature’s Fury” exhibition at the natural history museum in New York, she wonders how much she should shield her five-year-old from conversations around climate change. It is a query she carries with her as she embarks on a city-wide pilgrimage to visit each installation of a public art project called “Climate Signals” wherein the artist hijacks highway traffic signs, rewriting their commonplace warnings with uncanny proclamations of new hazards ahead. In Saint Nicolas Park in Harlem, the sign reads: CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK. At Hudson River Yards, the yellow lettering spells out an even more dire threat: CLIMATE DENIAL KILLS. In this expertly rendered essay –– gracefully weaving between the personal and critical, the scientific and political –– Raboteau attempts to make sense of what it means to raise a child in a world that is coming apart. It is a question many have but that is all too often addressed in reductive, late capitalist logic in which our human hearts are not taken into consideration.

Emily Raboteau
Emily Raboteau is a professor of creative writing at the City College of New York, and the author of several nontraditional longform essays, including a year-long Twitter thread on climate change, @emilyraboteau.

After the Storm (Mary Annaïse Heglar, Guernica)

Mary Annaïse Heglar’s “After the Storm” stood out to me as a knockout personal essay on climate this year. Heglar is building a body of important work marrying climate awareness with social, environmental, and racial justice. In this piece, which ran in Guernica in October, she frames her harrowing experience of Hurricane Katrina, along with her family in the Mississippi River region, as the lens through which she now sees the climate movement as an activist and director of publications at the National Resources Defense Council. She weaves together the overtly racist news coverage of that storm, the fact that it made landfall the day after the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, and the inequitable suffering of New Orleans’ Black population to illuminate the layers of historical injustice magnified by the climate crisis, “covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy. It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically ‘left out,’ but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers.” This should be required reading for those interested in how equity and equality are pivotal to successful climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Mary Annaïse Heglar
Mary Annaïse Heglar is a climate justice writer and communications professional based in New York City.

The End Times Are Here, and I Am at Target (Hayes Brown, The Outline)

Perhaps the most perplexing paradox of climate change is its ability to be both overwhelmingly terrifying and mind-numbingly ordinary. Especially in the past few years, as denial has become less of a viable option and even delusion has slipped from our fingers, the climate crisis with its alarming headlines and horror stories has become… normal. The steady drumbeat to the banality of our lives. Hayes Brown manages to capture that drumbeat in this masterful essay, isolating its sound out of the symphony with surgical precision. As he runs regular errands in a regular Target on a regular, if unusually hot, summer day in Brooklyn, the climate crisis reverberates in the back of his mind, filtering into every choice of every item, if he allows himself to think of it. As someone who exists as a bonafide “climate person,” I love the fresh eye that Hayes brings to the subject. He gives voice to the haunting bewilderment, the guilt of surrender, and the uncertainty that lies within the cracks of the certainty. His essay reminds us of the dullness of our collective heartbreak as we stare into our manmade abyss.

Mikael Awake
Mikael Awake‘s work has appeared in GQ, Bookforum, ArtNews, The Common, and most recently McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D. He teaches at Lafayette College.

Indigenous Knowledge Has Been Warning Us About Climate Change for Centuries (Malcolm Harris, Pacific Standard)

This piece by Malcolm Harris has stuck with me for a few reasons. It came out in Pacific Standard, which was an important outlet for environmental writing before it was shut down this past August. (How the crisis in media has interacted with the climate crisis is a subject for another day.) The essay is an elegant synthesis of entomology, economics, and colonial history that places indigenous knowledge at the foundation of the climate conversation — not as ornament, but as central anti-capitalist critique, as timeless technology. Such a piece could inspire the allotment of more time and money — in academic, political, media, and cultural spaces — for deeper dives into indigenous environmentalism and systems of knowledge. It made me dream of a 1619 Project-style series devoted to un-suppressing those narratives, and made me think about Standing Rock and Mauna Kea and how the violent suppression of indigenous activism works hand-on-musket with the suppression of indigenous thought. Harris is a sharp and funny writer, which is why this story seemed something of a departure in approach and tone, and I appreciated it. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who posits the crucial idea that what we call climate change is not a new challenge, but one as old as the New World, “part of a much longer series of ecological catastrophes caused by colonialism and accumulation-based society.” The piece resonated with my feeling that imagination is a function of collective human memory, or as Harris says, paraphrasing sociologist Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani, “[t]hose who study what has been suppressed can see the future.”

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.