Tale of deep geological time feels like a scientifically accurate disaster movie.
The Ends of the World, Peter Brannen’s masterful non-fiction debut, might be just the book to give to that uncle of yours who still wants to argue about climate change (or even to your US Representative). But first, read it yourself. It’s a page turner.
The book’s premise is mind-bendingly vast: a geological history of Earth’s past extinctions. It succeeds because of bold and lyrical writing—a rare occurrence in a science book—and because of its unyielding focus on the present. Brannen shows us how past extinction crises were in fact climate crises. Deep time and geology are the keys to comprehend the effects of global warming. Even more so than statistical models and projections, fossils and discontinuities in ancient rock layers tell us a gripping tale of what lies ahead of us. As the author remarked to me: “it’s crazy that most people don’t know anything about the most important events in the history of the planet… especially given their unsettling relevance to the future.”
Cataclysmic global mass death inevitably summons images of the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Era. And yet, as Brannen artfully recounts it, the dinosaurs’ cinematic end is merely the last great extinction event in the deep past, and a misleading one at that. All extinction episodes, including the dinosaurs’, share one feature or process in common: quick and massive disruptions in the atmosphere’s carbon cycle, usually—but not always—triggered by volcanic activity.
Brannen weaves these sudden changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide through an engrossing narrative. His book is much more than a grisly catalogue of past Armageddons—although it is certainly filled with the ghosts, or fossils, of bygone faunas and biotopes, the severed branches from the great tree of evolution. Brannen manages to bring these creatures back to life, along with their environments and the catastrophes that befell them.
He spends a good amount of time in the field with paleontologists and geologists, by the side of back-country roads, in open-air mines, or in various exotic and not-so-exotic locales. His travels, from Indiana and Texas to New Jersey, show us that all the clues to these long-ago disasters are strewn across familiar landscapes. Underneath our everyday “photosynthetic glop”—as one of the paleontologists calls it—lie layers upon layers of petrified remains, as well as sudden ruptures in the stratas’ continuity. These abrupt changes are recorded in the rocks themselves. They are like pulses in time. From one layer to the next one above, no more trilobites or nightmarish placoderms or dimetrodons—entire animal reigns and ecosystems have vanished.
So what happened? The evidence suggests that every single time, mass extinction was the result of runaway alterations in the planet’s atmospheric composition.
For instance, at the end of the Permian 252 million years ago, colossal lava flows in what is now Siberia poisoned the atmosphere with deadly gases. Geologists call it “The Great Dying” for a reason. To give a sense of the Great Dying’s magnitude, Brannen notes that the Siberian Traps released enough lava to bury the entire United States half a mile deep. Light isotopes of carbon saturate the end-Permian stratum, indicating global atmospheric changes of an unimaginable scale. The most up-to-date theory suggests that magmatic intrusions (the type that did not reach the Earth’s surface) lit up the large deposits of hydrocarbons encased in the rocks. The planet set itself ablaze, burning its stores of fossil fuels from the inside. Add to that the fact that at the time all emerged land masses were gathered in one single supercontinent, Pangaea, and you have the recipe for almost complete death. Supercanes, giant and extremely fast hurricanes, roamed the open landscapes unimpeded, while only the basest of lifeforms, mushrooms, seemed able to thrive.
The entire book is a detailed illustration of how life ends on our pale blue dot, and how fast. Brannen does it with great elegance and even poetry. If, like me, you love John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, you will not be disappointed by this very worthy complement.
More importantly, this is a science book with a purpose. The Ends of the World is a literary attempt at The Day After—the 1984 TV movie that awakened the American public and its elected leaders to the real and immediate dangers of atomic war. Provided your obstinate uncle (or US representative) believes in science rather Creationism, it might convince them of the urgency of the problem. The danger of global warming is now: as Penn State geoscientist Lee Kump dryly notes in the book: “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.”