The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions
By Peter Brannen
Review by David Wineberg
The five mass extinctions are a cliché. We actually have no understanding of what really happened. Peter Brannen has written a remarkable and extremely readable book (his first) to fill in the voids. The result is thought-provoking, gripping, and more than a little worrisome. It might be clear insight, but it makes you squirm.
There were three main reasons for the extinctions. We all know about the asteroid hit, because it was only proven in the 1980s. But volcanic eruptions – the likes of which we have fortunately never seen – were the cause of another. As well, the planet keeps tipping in and out of ice ages as it wobbles its way along. When mass extinctions occur, they tend to be really fast – same day in the case of the asteroid hit, very few years in other cases. It’s not a gradual decline; it’s a stunning vanishing. Few species make it to the next era; we start over every time.
The mechanics are remarkably similar. The level of carbon dioxide soars, crippling the oceans from doing their job, and they return the favor to the air, crippling everything else. The weather turns unimaginably violent. Everything gets wiped out. Land surfaces get scoured. It takes the oceans a good hundred thousand years to regain balance, and then a hundred million years for a new world of plants and animals to evolve and populate the barren Earth. In the interim, Earth is Hell.
Brannen assembles the wisdom of renowned paleontologists to put the scenes together. There isn’t much disagreement on the mechanics or the major events. As CO2 rises, so do temperatures, and very few beings are capable of functioning in higher temperature bands. They falter and die. For survivors, there would be nothing to live on.
Today we are in remarkably pleasant pause between ice ages, in which the continents have very fortuitously aligned north-south. That allows for migration and survival as different climates take hold. It also keeps the oceans pumping. There is a nice, benign balance to the weather, and the horrific volcanic flows that can deposit literally miles thick lava over entire countries, have ceased.
Unfortunately, one species has seen fit to take command, and it is working to throw the balance the Earth has achieved into another era of chaos. We are imposing change at a rate “ten times faster” than the worst events in Earth’s history, say the paleontologists. When temperatures rise just one degree, the balance is upset. We are (laughably) attempting to hold it at another two. That will not support life as we know it. “The entire global economy depends on how quickly we can get carbon out of the ground and into the atmosphere,” says one. And we’re doing it bigger and better even than our volcanoes. As for rising oceans, paleontologists snicker at estimates of .5 to 2m. Every time this happened before, it was more like 15-20m for this kind of temperature rise. Considering all the factors that make a mass extinction, “We are the perfect storm.”
One key takeaway is that we cannot learn from the events of the past. Every mass extinction was different. There are so many variables, life forms, different configurations of land and sea, there is no way of predicting numeric outcomes with certainty. Past performance does not guarantee future results. But the overall picture is grim and coming up fast, and Brannen found no paleontologists who say different.
The Ends of the World fills in huge gaps, put things in perspective and (cough) clears the air about how the Earth works. It is an extraordinary, valuable insight, colorfully written and also horribly frightening. Maybe nothing is forever, but we’re not helping.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.