Sunday, October 16, 2011

And Then There Were None...: A Review of Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future by Peter D. Ward

Title: Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future
Author: Peter D. Ward
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Smithsonian Books (2007)
Pages: 242
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: I'm currently researching a book that requires I read a crap-ton of books on the various arguments for or against global warming (among myriad other topics). This is just one of many that I've picked up from my library.

About the Author: Dr. Peter D. Ward is a professor of biology and earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves as an astrobiologist with NASA. Ward is the author of more than a dozen books, including the highly acclaimed Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe with Donald Brownlee and Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Earth's Ancient Atmosphere.

Synopsis: By looking backward at the course of great extinctions, a paleontologist sees what the future holds.

More than 200 million years ago, a cataclysmic event known as the Permian extinction destroyed more than 90 percent of all species and nearly 97 percent of all living things. Its origins have long been a puzzle for paleontologists. During the 1990s and the early part of this century, a great battle was fought between those who though that death had come from above and those who thought something more complicated was at work.

Paleontologist Peter D. Ward, fresh from helping prove that an asteroid had killed the dinosaurs, turned to the Permian problem, and he has come to a stunning conclusion. In his investigations of the fates of several groups of mollusks during that extinction and others, he discovered that the near-total devastation at the end of the Permian period was caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide leading to climate change. But it's not the heat (nor the humidity) that's directly responsible for the extinctions, and the story of the discovery of what is responsible makes for a fascinating, globe-spanning adventure.

In Under a Green Sky, Ward explains how the Permian extinction as well as four others happened, and describes the freakish oceans--belching poisonous gas--and sky--slightly green and always hazy--that would have attended them. Those ancient upheavals demonstrate that the threat of climate change cannot be ignored, lest the world's life today--ourselves included--face the same dire fate that has overwhelmed our planet several times before.

Review: When I was a kid, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was to be a paleontologist. I loved dinosaurs more than life itself. Hell, my imaginary friend from the time I was about two years old was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Over time that dream was replaced by others, but I've never fully lost my taste for all things paleontological. So when I saw that this book was not only about global warming and mass extinctions but that it had been written by a paleontologist, I was ridiculously excited to read it. What I found was rather strange--Ward's book oscillates between a lucid, well-reasoned, scientifically-based argument for the relationship between climate change and mass extinctions and a syntactically (almost) unreadable account of his global travels to discover the truth about various extinction events.

I know. You're looking at that last sentence going, "Huh?" What I mean is that Under a Green Sky suffers from a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome. When Ward is talking only on a scientific level--that is, when he's discussing the history of the arguments behind the causes of mass extinctions or when he's elucidating the evidence he's gathered about the relationship between CO2 and extinctions--he is not only readable, but enjoyably so. Ward writes in such a way that even those readers without an extensive knowledge of climate science or paleo-anything-ology can follow his argument. In his hands, the subject matter is discussed with an eye toward easy access by the audience and comprehensive coverage of relevant information. It's interesting, appropriately succinct or elaborated upon depending on what the subject at hand requires, and highly compelling.

On the other hand, about a quarter of the book is taken up by Ward relating the events in his life that led him to his ultimate conclusions. These events include trips to study fossil records and climatic evidence all around the globe. While it's fascinating to see what he did to gather information, it's frustrating that these sections of the book are so different in terms of writing style from everything else. Ward seems determined to use the strangest possible syntax to write his sentences, often abusing commas and semi-colons like a drug addict abuses meth. He gets very flowery in an obnoxious way and it's almost as if he's narrating a lost chapter in the chronicles of Indiana Jones. Don't get me wrong; I love Indiana Jones (except for that godawful crystal skull movie that I refuse to admit exists). But the constant changing between lucidity and romanticism drove me insane.

For example, here's a paragraph Ward writes about comets:
How could a comet impact create volcanism or a change in sea level? Much was known about what large-body impact on Earth could or could not do, and this was in the realm of the "could not do." While it makes intuitive sense that a large rock slamming into Earth could somehow shake from some great volcanic paroxysm, that doesn't mean that it will. About this time many workers became less sanguine about the possibility that the P-T extinction had been caused by impact, leaving buckyballs and dead species in its wake (74). 
Even if you have no idea what Ward is saying, I think that you'll be able to see the difference between that and this:
I was tired, bored, hot, thirsty, and very much wanting to go back to camp and rest my sore feet in a bowl of muddy-but-cool river water. With skin pinked by the sun and wrinkled by the incessant, sandy wind, I shuffled through the dusty heat on sore legs, arriving at a fork in the small watercourse that I had been following for more than an hour, vainly seeking paleontological gold, the spectral skulls and skeletons of the long--the very long--dead. Only patches of sedimentary rock were visible about this sandy streambed, one that eventually emptied into the Orange Free State's Caledon River, itself one of the largest watercourses in this dry region of South Africa's Great Karoo Desert. One fork circled roughly back in the downhill direction I had come from, leading downward through time, back into the Permian period, toward the slightly older rocks at the river's edge that were full of Permian-aged skeletons, the remains of a large and curious land animal fauna that characterized planet Earth some 251 million years ago... (61). 
I borrowed a book about global warming out of the library and got a broken up novella as an added "bonus."

That's not to say that this book doesn't have merit. Ward presents lots of compelling evidence and creates a theory worthy of continued study. He builds his narrative up from decades of prior research by dozens of experts in a variety of fields and this narrative is what makes Under a Green Sky such a worthwhile read. Ward's occasional detours into sentence structures not seen since the 1700s only happen at the beginning of each chapter and are pretty clearly demarcated from the rest of the chapter. If you so choose, you could probably skip these few pages and not miss anything in terms of the meat of the book.

Whether you're a climate skeptic or a climate believer, reading about the various ideas surrounding the subject of global warming is illuminating. Ward's book is no exception and he presents a scenario that is hard to ignore. The data derived from the fossil record pretty much speaks for itself and I, for one, finished this book with the opinion that Ward may be right...or at least not far from the truth. Under a Green Sky is, all things considered, a great book and I recommend it with no reservations.

I'm giving Peter Ward's Under a Green Sky 4 out of 5 Gabriels.


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