October 5, 2018

Review: The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses

The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses by Peter Brannen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read some very good science books this year, and this is yet another. It discusses the six major mass extinctions in our planet's history (I always thought there were five, but Peter Brannen tosses in another one, the End-Pleistocene, which he pins on early humans). Of course, the granddaddy of mass extinctions is the End-Permian (252 million years ago), which is summed up in this cheerful paragraph:

To summarize: There was an ocean that was rapidly acidifying--one that, over huge swaths of the planet, was as hot as a Jacuzzi and completely bereft of oxygen. There were sickly tides suffused with so much carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that either poison would have sufficed as a killer in its own right. There was a Russian landscape detonating and being smothered in lava several miles deep. There was a fog of neurotoxins and lethal smog streaming from these volcanoes and, high above, an ozone layer blasted apart by halocarbons, inviting a bath of lethal radiation at the planet's surface. There was forest-destroying acid rain and a landscape so barren that rivers had stopped winding. There were carbon dioxide levels so high, and global warming so intense, that much of the earth had become too hot even for insects. And now there were Kump's unearthly mega-hurricanes, made of poison swamp gas, that would have towered into the heavens and obliterated whole continents.

The Kump mentioned here then compares these conditions to the modern day:

"Well, at the rate at which we're injecting CO2 into the atmosphere today, according to our best estimates, is ten times faster than it was during the End-Permian."

Books like this are very important. They point out the brutal truth: If humans continue on our fossil-fuel-burning suicidal march, we will probably destroy ourselves and much of life on Earth as well. The planet itself will survive, and life will return, albeit in a radically new fashion, as has happened after each of the previous mass extinctions. But civilization will be gone, and so will Homo sapiens. All because of a few decades of deliberate blindness and unmatched greed, and for what?

This is an interesting, well-written book, but it is not a happy one. Too much here strikes way too close to home. I don't know if it's even possible, now, to stop what's coming, but I commend this author, and others, for writing books like this, which use the past to illuminate the present.

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