The surveillance video showed her at 2:45 PM in the lobby of the Moscone South Conference Center in San Francisco, sitting on a bench to the right of the down escalators, her face in her hands, sobbing.
She wore slacks and a blue blazer, her black hair tied back in a ponytail. The lanyard round her neck held her meeting badge with her name, Deborah Sanchez, in large black letters; at the bottom of the badge, a red stripe with the word ‘Convenor’ in gold letters showed she’d organized a session.
Crowds of participants at the fall meeting of the International Geophysics Society surged past her, some taking the escalator downstairs to the poster sessions, others headed for the conference rooms. As they descended the escalator, many participants observed her tears, but all looked away.
A day later, three blocks down Mission Street from the Moscone, in a small windowless conference room in the FBI offices on the 13th floor of the Federal Building, the young woman agent paused the video. She wore a black pants suit with a white shirt and had curly red hair and the shoulders of a competitive swimmer. Her photo ID gave her name as Marian Schaeffer.
“How can they ignore her crying?” she asked the other occupant of the room, a young man dressed in a tweed jacket, blue shirt, necktie, and khakis. Clipped to his jacket was a bright orange badge with his name, Josh Hamilton, the date, a visitor number, and the large black letters ‘ERVP,’ for ‘Escort Required Visitors Pass.’ He had been the session co-convenor with Sanchez.
He reddened. “It’s a tough meeting. Careers and funding are in the balance. People get hurt and stressed out.”
She frowned and stared at him. “Till they burst into tears?”
Hamilton flushed. “Agent Schaeffer,” he said. “Why am I here? It’s a personal tragedy that Deb’s had a breakdown, but not a crime.”
Schaeffer started a voice recorder, its red light blinking. “What I’m about to tell you is confidential. You must promise not to discuss this outside this room.”
“Dr. Sanchez is being considered for an appointment as the Climate Lead on the President’s Science Advisory Board. The FBI is tasked with vetting her. Please tell me what happened.”
Hamilton took a deep breath. “Yesterday at the Moscone, Deb and I had our meeting on the future of land ice. I ran the morning session; she ran the afternoon. The first talk in her session is what drove her over the edge.” He opened his laptop. “I have a copy of the live-stream here. Would you like to see it?”
“I would,” Schaeffer said, “but you can’t project it. Only FBI laptops are permitted on our systems.”
He brought up the video. It showed a conference room with an elevated stage at one end with the wall-sized screen behind it displaying the introductory slide.
“This is the critical talk,” he said. “The project lead, Mustafa Gupta, is at the podium. Deb and I are seated to the right. Its title is ‘The use of recently-declassified Keyhole satellite data to study the Himalayan glaciers.’ The list below it shows Gupta’s approximately twenty co-investigators.”
Schroeder looked perplexed. “What’s a Keyhole?”
“It’s that thing floating in space behind the title that looks like a telephone pole,” he said. “Fifteen tons of 1960’s dawn-of-the-space-age technology, a real relic. It’s 15 meters long, 3 meters in diameter, and older than all the investigators.
“Because digital cameras hadn’t been invented, it carried giant film cameras plus 100 kilometers of film. The cameras were so good that from their pictures, you could count the number of people sitting around a picnic table. This allowed US intelligence to monitor things like the Chinese nuclear tests at Lop Nor.”
“How’d the film get back to Earth?”
“See these eight spheroids spaced along the telephone pole like peas in a pod? They’re reentry capsules. Once a camera took a picture, its exposed film was transferred to one of them, which when full or if the imagery were really needed on the ground, would be ejected over the North Pacific. As the capsule entered the atmosphere, it deployed a parachute, and if everything worked, an aircraft would be there to catch it in a cargo net.”
He started the video but kept the sound low. Deborah gave a brief introduction to Gupta, sat down, then the screen showed a perspective view of the Himalayas from the south. The 3,000-kilometer-long arc of snow and glacier-capped mountains loomed over and extended into the green plains of India. The dry Tibetan plateau lay to the north.
“The highest mountains in the world,” Hamilton said. “When the monsoon flows over them, its moisture falls as snow, which is compressed into glaciers. It’s the third largest amount of ice in the world, exceeded only by Antarctica and Greenland.
“As the glaciers melt in summer, their water flows into those rivers on the plain. That’s the Indus on the west, the Ganges in the middle, and the Brahmaputra on the east. Further east, we have the Irrawaddy, Mekong, and Yangtze. These are big rivers; the Ganges alone makes the Mississippi look like a babbling brook.”
The slide changed to a Keyhole image labeled as Mount Dhaulagiri, its glaciers white against the dark mountain rock. “This is great data,” he said. “Those cold warriors knew what they were doing.”
The slide changed again. “Dhaulagiri again, but now Gupta’s comparing old and new imagery, Keyhole to the left, modern to the right. The ice shrinkage is shocking.”
Gupta continued with similar comparisons for Annapurna, Everest, Makala, and Kangchenjunga. “In the west,” said Hamilton, “we tend to think of these peaks, if we think of them at all, as mountaineering trophies. But their contribution to the water cycle is much more important.”
The slide changed to a graph of the cumulative ice loss. “The additional twenty years of scrutiny provided by Keyhole shows that the Himalayan losses are much worse than we previously thought. By the end of this century, most of this ice will be gone.”
“This seems pretty technical,” said Schaeffer. “So what upset her?”
He stopped the video. “I’ll tell you what upset her. It’s the loss of the Himalayan ice. The monsoon pumps the fresh water that evaporates from the ocean up to the glaciers, which slowly melt into the rivers that provide water to a quarter of the world’s population.
“These losses will condemn at least two billion people to severe water deprivation. By continuing to burn carbon, we’re destroying a natural water system that’s worked for millennia.”
Schaeffer looked chastened.
Hamilton restarted the video. When Gupta finished, he left his concluding slide on the screen. Instead of the usual applause, the room went completely silent, only to be interrupted by a long low moan.
“That was Deb,” said Hamilton.
In the video, Deborah Sanchez stood up and with an anguished cry, stepped from the stage, ran down the side aisle, and out the door.
“We couldn’t find her. By the time we checked the women’s room and the public areas, she was gone. All we found was her badge on a bench in the lobby.”
They sat silently for a moment, then Schaeffer said, “Thank you, Dr. Hamilton, I appreciate your help. If I could have a copy of your live-stream on a stick, our IT department will copy it.” He packed up his laptop, and they walked to the elevators.
At 3:00 PM, a camera in its gray dome above the Moscone lobby coat check showed a young woman, her black hair tied back in a ponytail, standing in line, then collecting her roller bag and raincoat. Thirty minutes later, time-stamped imagery of the Amtrak counter at the Market Street Transit Center showed her buying a roomette ticket to Seattle on the Coast Starlight.
Five minutes later, body cameras worn by ICE agents in the waiting room showed she had an abrupt interaction with the three large men in black uniforms with armored vests. One of them had a German Shepherd on a short leash with a vest that said ‘DO NOT PET.’ In these videos, which are jerky and irregularly lit, she looked stiff and unhappy.
“I remember her,” Agent Kikowski said. “Yeah, we profiled Sanchez, she looked agitated and upset, fit our profile guidelines to a tee. But what a lip on her! When we ran her ID through the scanner, it came up all professor, member of the National Academy, la-de-dah. I mean, come on lady; we’re only doing our jobs. The orange and red streaks in her hair surprised me. I mean, teenagers, okay, but she’s a big-deal professor. At any rate, we apologized, and she went out to the platform.” Platform surveillance showed that she boarded without further incident.
The next morning, as the train traveled from northern California to Oregon, Steve Aster, a graduate student returning from the same meeting, met her on the upper deck of the observation car. He was interviewed later in Seattle.
“I almost didn’t recognize her,” Aster said. “Instead of her hair pulled back in its usual ponytail, she’d untied it, so it fell to her shoulders. And she’d dyed it with streaks of red, green, and yellow, autumnal colors, I guess. After my initial confusion, she invited me to sit with her. It was great to have a chance to talk informally with her, I’m in awe of her work. Her ensemble models of the melting ice caps and their contribution to sea level rise are beautiful.
“But after we talked only briefly about science, she pointed west and said that ‘way over the horizon beyond the coast range, with the Earth experiencing only one-point-five degrees of global warming, half the Great Barrier Reef was dead. We’re witnessing the catastrophic collapse of the largest living organism on Earth. And south of that, on the Antarctic continent, is the runaway Thwaites Glacier….’
“She turned and pointed to me. ‘It’s not just the external world I’m worried about,’ she said. ‘Consider our blood, yours and mine. It contains nano-particles of plastic that circulate through our bodies and brains. This has no good end.’ Her eyes welled up. She said she needed to be alone, so I thanked her and left.”
At 7 PM that evening, at Seattle King Street Station, platform video shows her exiting the train, wearing jeans and a parka. When the Red Caps went to make up her room, they found her formal clothes on the bed, folded neatly under her laptop. A camera in the waiting room shows her leaving the station with her roller bag into light rain at the King Street exit. Thirty minutes later, in the video from the camera over the ticket booth at the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal, she purchased a ticket to Winslow.
She sailed on the Wenatchee and despite the rain, the deck cameras show her standing in the dark on the forward outer deck for most of the trip, her hood pulled up over her head. When she went inside, she carefully avoided the three men on the deck wearing black jackets, tan tactical pants, and body armor with the words ‘Department of Homeland Security’ on their backs.
A crew member remembers her speaking disapprovingly of the small three-man Coast Guard boat that accompanied the Wenatchee across the sound, a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on its bow and a blue strobe above the cockpit. A voice over the speaker said, “To ensure the safety of our marine perimeter.”
Her response was scornful. “Safety! There’s no safety here.”
At the Winslow terminal, video confirmed she left the ferry through the long covered pedestrian gangway. A few minutes later, at the unstaffed Kitsap Transit bus shelter in the lower lot, video footage that was gray and spotted with raindrops showed she’d struggled to use the ticket machine. A young woman, subsequently identified as Elizabeth Carr, dressed in black outdoor pants and a dark felted-wool jacket, walked over to help her.
During her interview with Schaeffer, Carr said, “She was trying to buy a ticket to Port Gamble but kept inserting her card upside down.
“After getting her a ticket, it turned out we were on the same bus, so after stowing our coats, we sat together. She was thin, looked tired and tense, and smelled like the woods, much nicer than the diesel smell of the bus. Her hair was dyed in autumnal colors, red, green, and gold. Made my fingers itch to paint it.
“I’d just flown in from Greenland to SeaTac and was headed home to Port Townsend. I was exhausted. I’d been in west Greenland, at Kangerlussuaq and Ilulissat, painting landscapes and glaciers.
“When I told Sanchez that, she looked annoyed. ‘Greenland,’ she said. ‘That’s at least two tons of unnecessary carbon you emitted to the atmosphere.’
“I got a little huffy. ‘You may think it’s a lot and so do I, but to paraphrase Ralph Keeling, if we don’t enjoy these glaciers now, forget it, because they may not be around for much longer. And we sure can’t save what we don’t love.’
“Sanchez looked startled. ‘You know the Keelings?’
“I laughed. ‘Not personally.’
“To my surprise, she held up her left forearm and pulled up her sleeve to reveal a tattoo. It was about the size of a cell phone and showed an upward-trending line that wiggled as it rose. ‘You recognize this?’
“I almost rolled my eyes. ‘Sure. It’s the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past seventy years that Charles Keeling and his son Ralph measured.’
“Sanchez smiled, her face finally showing something other than anger and despair. ‘You’re right. Even though the line’s upward growth shows our fossil fuel consumption is making the atmosphere inhospitable for humans, the wiggles on the curve, the annual oscillations, are of equal interest.’
“She pointed at her arm. ‘These are driven by the planet breathing, the inhale being the absorption of carbon from the atmosphere by spring plant growth, and the exhale, its release from their autumnal death and decay. The Earth’s been doing this for millions of years.’
“Even jet-lagged, I could follow her. ‘And trees,’ she said. ‘They’re even better than plants. Not only do they absorb and release carbon, but they store it in their annual growth. Do you understand all this?’
“I felt like I was back in college. ‘I think so,’ I said. She dropped her left arm and rolled down its sleeve.”
Schaeffer interrupted. “She’s on the run, but using her tattoo for a show-and-tell about global warming?” She laughed. “What about her other arm?”
“Let me continue,” Carr said, something about her expression suggesting she felt she’d violated Sanchez’s trust. “On the bus, Sanchez raised her right arm and rolled its sleeve up to her shoulder. This revealed a second tattoo, a jagged black line that ran from her wrist to her biceps, where it curved behind her arm.
“I said, ‘What’s that curve?’
“Sanchez looked at me like I hadn’t studied. ‘It’s the global surface temperature from 1880 to present.’
“I raised my eyebrows. ‘It looks really new.’
“She rubbed the tattoo gently. ‘It’s a month old. You’re the first to see it.’
“Whatever it was, I wanted to draw it. From my backpack, I pulled out a pencil and my travel sketchbook, opened a fresh page, and looked at her. ‘May I?’ I said, waving my pencil above the page. She nodded.
“I drew two long ovals for her forearm and upper arm, then in one long stroke, sketched the tattoo. ‘That’s a really good pigment you’ve used,’ I said. ‘Can you tell me what it is?’
“‘It’s carbon from the Canadian forest fires,’ Sanchez said. ‘I wanted something with climate implications.’
“I lifted my pencil from the page. ‘I’ve seen it in Greenland. Last summer, I was artist-in-residence at a field camp on the ice sheet east of Upernavik. You think the snow up there is going to be pure and unsullied, but no, it’s darkened by soot. When we melted it for drinking and cooking water, gritty material would always collect at the bottom of our pots. We could not get away from it.’
“She tapped her arm. ‘That’s why I used it. Plus in my own small way, I wanted to sequester carbon.’
Schaeffer interrupted. “She’s really hard core.”
I nodded. “She’s very dedicated. But please let me wrap this up.”
“On the bus, and feeling like a student about to fail the course, I said to Sanchez, ‘What’s the line show?’
“She pointed to its beginning on her wrist. ‘The temperature starts here, in 1880.’ As she stated the dates, I jotted them on my sketch, then began replacing the ovals with the actual shape of her arm. ‘As the line goes up my forearm,’ she continued, ‘it swings to the right and left, showing that even as the temperature gets warmer or colder, after each excursion, it returns to its average. This continues to just below my elbow, or about 1930.’
“She moved her finger to a point one-third the way along her upper arm. ‘Right here, in 1980, the temperature really gets warmer. Now as the line deviates to the right,’ moving her finger as she spoke, ‘it stays there, with no sign of swinging back or cooling. Below my biceps, or in 1995, it’s gotten so warm that the line moves behind my arm.’
“She turned her arm over. ‘The line ends on my triceps with a warming of one-point-five degrees Celsius, or a little less than three degrees Fahrenheit.’ On my sketch, I added an inset of her triceps.”
“She looked at me with her intimating black eyes. ‘You getting all this?’ I nodded. ‘It’s not often I get to use my body as a white board.’
“In a few quick strokes, I finished her arm, outlined her shoulder and neck, then added an oval as a place-holder for her face. ‘What about the future?’ I said.
“She rolled down her sleeve. ‘Unless we humans change our behavior, by 2050, the temperature increase could double to three degrees Celsius or five degrees Fahrenheit.’ She stopped and stared at me. ‘For this increase, the curve would completely circle my arm. Temperatures this high could lead to what’s called a runaway greenhouse.’
“I outlined her hair and its dyed swaths, writing their colors in the margin. I’d fill them in later. In a few final strokes, I sketched her face. She looked over at my drawing, grimaced, but didn’t say anything.
“She wiped her eyes with a tissue. ‘I’m tired of being part of the problem,’ she said. ‘I’m tired of being a carbon source. Something’s got to give.’ When I asked her what she meant, her face locked down and she stopped talking. I closed my sketchbook and hoped I’d got it all.”
Agent Schaeffer interrupted. “Can I photograph your sketch? It’s the only evidence we have for her tattoo.” Carr nodded, then continued.
“It was eerie sitting next to Sanchez, with our previous intimacy replaced by her shunning me, driving through rural Kitsap at night, raindrops running down the windows, our seats illuminated by only the ceiling strip lights and the occasional house or street-light. After a stop in Kingston, we drove down a two-lane road with the bay on our right, through miles of the new Forest Heritage Park, toward Port Gamble and the Hood Canal bridge.
“Port Gamble is the prettiest town in Washington, an old lumber town where the former workers’ houses have been beautifully painted and without the usual sprawl. It’s located at the north end of a broad peninsula between the forest and the water.
“After our bus made a sharp left turn just south of town, it stopped at the old general store at the edge of the woods, and she got off. The last I saw her, she was dragging her roller bag past the store into darkness.”
The next morning, the rains had stopped in Port Gamble. Newly married Janet Savage, visiting from Twisp with her spouse Naomi, said “We woke up in our B&B to sun pouring in our windows, a pleasant change, so we decided to go on a before-breakfast hike.
“We entered the woods at the trailhead behind the old grocery. After about two hundred yards, in a clearing where a second trail branched off, there was a roller bag. Stacked neatly on top was a cell phone, a small purse, and items of women’s clothing. A pair of shoes was on the ground. In the mud between the roller bag and an alder grove set in the undergrowth on the other side of the intersection, there was a line of bare footprints. We immediately called 911, they said they’d be right out.”
Sheriff Mary Lou Taine was among the first responders. Tall and dressed in a tan uniform with her six-pointed star above her left pocket and her name tag above her right, she said, “We taped off the area around the clothing and footprints. I then called Kitsap Emergency Management and asked for K-9s and a Search and Rescue team.
“From the driver’s license and University ID in her purse, we identified her as Deborah Sanchez. I immediately phoned the university for a bio and pics. When we got them, and thank heavens for email, we distributed her picture to the media. In case she got to the water, I alerted the S’Klallam tribal police across the bay in Little Boston and the Navy down at Bangor. At about noon, a K-9 team arrived, Helen Markovic and her bloodhound Barney.”
A fit young woman with short blond hair, Helen said, “Even though her underwear and socks were damp from the rain, they meant Barney had a good scent to work with. When you go on a hike, be sure to tuck a dirty sock under your windshield wiper. That way Barney and I can always find you.” She laughed.
“Here’s where it got weird. Barney followed the footprints across the clearing from the clothing, but after going no more than thirty feet or just before the alders, he alerted. There was nothing there, so we tried again, same result. We brought in another team, Marly with her K-9 Peggy Sue. Same result. The sheriff and I wondered, could she have fallen in a hole?”
“The park’s a tough area,” said the sheriff. “It consists of dense second-growth, alders, ground maples, salal, and fir trees, with 60 miles of rocks-and-roots trails, real ankle-breakers, a couple of lakes, and a beaver pond. Many years ago, when Pope and Talbot logged the area, they left behind giant old-growth stumps. When these rot out, they leave holes she could have fallen into, so my plan was as soon as the team arrived, I’d ask them to search the area around the footprints.
“The search and rescue team arrived at the store about 1:30 PM in their off-road vehicles. The team was part of Explorer Search and Rescue, ESAR for short, and consisted of about twenty teenage explorer scouts and their adult minders. The scouts were all male, unlike the mixed groups I’d previously worked with. They were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, had enormous rucksacks, and loved to do this, especially if they got to miss school.
“But there were difficulties. When the scouts heard from my briefing that they would be searching for a woman with no clothes on …” She made a face. “Let’s just say I had to severely caution them to watch their language.” Shaking her head, she said, “Sometimes it’s harder looking after teenagers than to find a lost person.
“The first thing we did was to run as close to a fingertip-to-fingertip grid search as we could in a hundred-yard box around the site. The dense brush made this almost impossible. To be on the safe side, we had a two-person team to search the coastal trail along the bay and asked the K-9s to search the interior trails. I also sent my deputies and the Port Gamble police to knock on doors and inspect houses and outbuildings adjacent to the park. Nobody found anything. By 4:30 PM, it was getting dark, so we called off the search and planned to reconvene the next day, at first light.
“The forecast for that evening wasn’t good, it predicted below-freezing temperatures. I was worried that even if she was still alive, the cold temperatures and hyperthermia would make it extraordinarily difficult for her to survive. At the end of the second day, we called off the search. She may have been picked up by someone, she may have made it to the water, we’ll never know. The scouts of course, said she’d been abducted by aliens.” She shook her head. “Teenage boys.”
In the morning of the second day, Schaeffer, who’d been doing interviews in the area, drove to Port Gamble and parked at the store next to the county trailer. She put on her hiking boots and a black FBI windbreaker, checked in with the sheriff, then walked into the site. The search was still on, dogs were barking in the distance, while her radio squawked updates. When she reached the yellow ‘do-not-cross-crime-scene’ tape, she looked across at the alders.
Most of the trunks had horizontal growth scars, but on one of them, a dark crack ran irregularly upward to curve out of sight. She pulled out her phone, looked at Carr’s sketch of the tattoo, and sighed. The two curves, one from the photo, the other on the tree, were identical. Wait till I tell my supervisor that Sanchez has turned into a tree, she thought, won’t that go well. She frowned. Could Carr be pulling a scam?
As she continued to stare at the trees, she shivered. Something weird was going on with the branches and leaves. Was that a face she saw? For the moment, she decided to say nothing. Officially, the footprints and pile of clothes were the last sign of Deborah Sanchez.
A few days later, Carr came down from Port Townsend. She parked at the store and walked into the site, carrying a bouquet of flowers. As video from a concealed camera showed, she left the flowers at a makeshift memorial site that included photographs, flowers, and science journals. She sketched the trees and their surroundings, took some photos, and left.
In April the following year, as part of the monthly Port Townsend art walk, the Jefferson Gallery had a show that included several of Carr’s paintings. While Carr was greeting people and answering questions at the Water Street gallery, she saw a familiar face.
“Agent Schaeffer! What are you doing here?”
“Don’t worry. I’m here as a civilian,” Schaeffer said, reddening slightly. “Please, call me Mary.” She took a plastic cup of chardonnay from a nearby table and drank half of it.
“Glad you’re here, Mary,” Carr said, smiling. “I’m Liz. Let me show you my paintings.”
She guided Schaeffer through the crowd to an alcove. Here was her work, mounted on the old brick walls, consisting of mostly mountain and Greenland glaciers, with one exception.
It showed an alder grove in autumn, their nearly white bark and muted colored leaves lit by a low morning sun. On the ground before them was a line of small bare footprints. Near the middle of the painting, one of the alders had a dark irregular crack that ran up the trunk until it curved around the trunk out of sight.
“When I first saw that line at Port Gamble,” Schaeffer said, “I thought you must have doctored it.”
Carr looked startled. “I’d never do that.”
“Well, yeah. I went back about a month ago, and took a sample from that part of the crack that curved behind the trunk, the biceps you might call it…” They both laughed. “But it was just a crack, from frost or drought, no signs of any ink. Sorry I doubted you.”
Then Carr spoke so softly that only Schaeffer could hear her. “Did you see the face?”
Schaeffer took another cup of wine, her hand shaking slightly. She drank most of it, her fingers squeezing the plastic, while staring at the picture. Then like that day at Port Gamble, the picture changed.
Near the scarred trunk, the thin alder branches formed a network of lines that portrayed a woman’s face, with autumn leaves as her hair. Gulping her remaining wine, Schaeffer stared at it. Although the face was gaunt, it looked calm, as if the woman had opted out of the global carbon-burning civilization and was now part of the global plant-driven respiration.
Author’s note: The story’s title is from Jimmy Cliff’s song, By the Rivers of Babylon. The idea came from James Tiptree’s story, The Last Flight of Dr. Ain, available online. The personality of the protagonist Deb Sanchez made use of the eloquent online writing about climate grief of two climate scientists, Tamsin Edwards at King’s College London, and Joëlle Gergis at Australian National University. The Keyhole (KH) satellites are real, and their recent declassification has helped greatly in understanding of the Himalayan ice. Deb’s left-hand tattoo has the same format as climatologist Jessica Tierney’s tattoo of Earth’s glacial history, while Deb’s right-arm tattoo is identical to that of climate artist Justin Guariglia. The description of the accumulation of forest-fire soot in cooking pots on the Greenland icesheet is from my own experience. The young woman painter, Eizabeth Carr, is modeled after a combination of Guariglia and my daughter. The quote about leaving dirty socks under your windshield wipers if you don’t want to get lost on a hike comes from the profile of team Amy & K9 Ellie Mae on the Kitsap County search dog website.