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The Big Answer


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The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

a book by Peter Brannen

(our site's book review)

It Appears We'll Probably Be Going Out with a Wimper, Not a Bang Like the Dinosaurs

The Amazon blurb says that New York Times Editors' Choice 2017

Forbes Top 10 Best Environment, Climate, and Conservation Book of 2017

As new groundbreaking research suggests that climate change played a major role in the most extreme catastrophes in the planet's history, award-winning science journalist Peter Brannen takes us on a wild ride through the planet's five mass extinctions and, in the process, offers us a glimpse of our increasingly dangerous future.

Our world has ended five times: it has been broiled, frozen, poison-gassed, smothered, and pelted by asteroids. In The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions, Peter Brannen dives into deep time, exploring Earth’s past dead ends, and in the process, offers us a glimpse of our possible future.

This poor fellow doesn't know it, but he is about to become a crispy critter in the mass extinction event previous to the Anthropocene Extinction currently ongoing (yes, it appears we'll be going out with a wimper, not a bang like the dinosaurs)
This poor fellow doesn't know it, but he is about to become a crispy critter in the mass extinction event previous to the Anthropocene Extinction currently ongoing (yes, it appears we'll be going out with a wimper, not a bang like the dinosaurs)

Scientists Are Piecing Together What Really Happened at the Crime Scenes of the Earth’s Biggest Whodunits

Many scientists now believe that the climate shifts of the twenty-first century have analogs in these five extinctions. Using the visible clues these devastations have left behind in the fossil record, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions takes us inside “scenes of the crime,” from South Africa to the New York Palisades, to tell the story of each extinction. Brannen examines the fossil record—which is rife with creatures like dragonflies the size of sea gulls and guillotine-mouthed fish—and introduces us to the researchers on the front lines who, using the forensic tools of modern science, are piecing together what really happened at the crime scenes of the Earth’s biggest whodunits.

Brannen examines the fossil record—which is rife with creatures like dragonflies the size of sea gulls
Brannen examines the fossil record—which is rife with creatures like dragonflies the size of sea gulls

Part road trip, part history, and part cautionary tale, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions takes us on a tour of the ways that our planet has clawed itself back from the grave, and casts our future in a completely new light.

This book takes us on a tour of the ways that our planet has clawed itself back from the grave, and casts our future in a completely new light
This book takes us on a tour of the ways that our planet has clawed itself back from the grave, and casts our future in a completely new light

Scientists Have a Good Idea What Caused Each of the 5 Mass Extinctions and What May Cause Ours

Chapters:

Introduction

  1. Beginnings
  2. The End-Ordovician Mass Extinction
  3. The Late Devonian Mass Extinction
  4. The End-Permian Mass Extinction
  5. The End-Triassic Mass Extinction
  6. The End-Cretaceous Mass Extinction
  7. The End-Pleistocene Mass Extinction
  8. The Near Future
  9. The Last Extinction

Extinction Intensity
Mass extinction intensity of the major extinction events on Earth: i.e. the fraction of genera that are present in each interval of time but do not exist in the following interval. The yellow line shows the long-term trend. Note that these data do not represent all genera that have ever lived, but rather only a selection of marine genera whose qualities are such that they are easily preserved as fossils.

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions points to compelling evidence that not only man, but also man-made climate change, have led to mass extinctions of myriad species, and that we are in danger of creating conditions similar to those of the past that have resulted in mass extinctions. Humans are omnipresent and have evolved in a very tiny amount of geologic time, and we could easily disappear from the Earth if we fail to address the issues of man-made climate change.


The Theme of This Book Is How Life on Earth Has Reacted to Catastrophic Changes—and How We Can Avoid Them

Brannen tells the story of some of the most spectacular events in the earth's history clearly and well, drawing on material from the most recent research. We didn't really need the digressions into the lives of some of the scientists involved, though. The theme of this book is how life on Earth has reacted to catastrophic changes—and how we can avoid them. The author takes an in-depth look at what the rises and falls in CO2 levels actually do to our planet: its oceans, its land masses, its climate, and its atmosphere. He provides an explanation of how the planet does its best to self-regulate its temperature—like when animals sweat to cool themselves because evaporating sweat causes cooling. Is the Sixth Mass Extinction upon us? Read The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions and decide for yourself. Let's just say the news isn't good.

Earth, most likely, is in a hospice situation as the Sixth Mass Extinction proceeds apace
Earth, most likely, is in a hospice situation as the Sixth Mass Extinction proceeds apace

The most recent extinction event resulted in the death of most dinosaurs (birds are dinosaurs, and they proliferate on our planet). The book ends with speculation about a sixth extinction event—the Sixth Mass Extinction—and there is discussion of the great possibility that humans are driving it, with increased carbon dioxide being produced, destruction of natural habitats for our land use needs and agricultural needs, and destroying many species entirely. The author takes potentially boring science and makes it into an interesting story. The book's implications for what's going on currently and what could happen in our future are absolutely crucial—he has frequent very relevant excursions into recent climate change debates. We are bringing about a new mass extinction that will destroy 80 to 90% of all lifeforms that exist today. At the end the readers are put on the jury and must decide for themselves the most likely path for Earth and what they think should be done.

Guy McPherson says we've got only 2 to 30 years left and our disrupted climate is irreversible, so only love remains: we are dancing at the edge of extinction
Guy McPherson says we've got only 2 to 30 years left and our disrupted climate is irreversible, so only love remains: we are dancing at the edge of extinction

A bit of lowering of our CO2 will do no good, according to Guy McPherson, author of Only Love Remains: Dancing at the Edge of Extinction. We've got only 2-30 years left, regardless, so just live and love fully in the little time that is left. Brannen disagrees, believing that we should dump fossil fuel and grab solar instead and maybe we will avoid the Sixth Mass Extiinction. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

We’re overfishing and changing the chemistry of all the oceans
We’re overfishing and changing the chemistry of all the oceans

We Are Living in a Time of Very Elevated Extinction Rates, on the Order That You Would See in a Mass Extinction

"What is clear, and what is beyond dispute, is that we are living in a time of very, very elevated extinction rates, on the order that you would see in a mass extinction, though a mass extinction might take many thousands of years to play out. Q: If we’re pulling the trigger, what did we load the gun with? A: There are thousands and thousands of scientific articles that have been written about this. We loaded it with, simply, hunting. We brought in invasive species. We are now changing the climate, very, very rapidly, by geological standards. We are changing the chemistry of all the oceans. We are changing the surface of the planet. We cut down forests, we plant mono-culture agriculture, which is not good for a lot of species. We’re overfishing. The list goes on and on." (Source: Will Humans Survive the Sixth Great Extinction?, Nadia Drake, National Geographic)

We are hunting many species to extinction, and we've messed up the environment for millions of species so that hundreds go extinct daily
We are hunting many species to extinction, and we've messed up the environment for millions of species so that hundreds go extinct daily


We are cutting down forests to make a quick buck, and wrecking the climate so Western USA ends up burning up lots of forests yearly which adds greenhouse gases
We are cutting down forests to make a quick buck, and wrecking the climate so Western USA ends up burning up lots of forests yearly which adds greenhouse gases

"The author walks us through the End-Ordovician to the End-Cretaceous, describing flora and fauna and debating catastrophic events which contributed to the end of each. Through interviews with prominent geologists and paleontologists like Columbia University’s Paul Olsen, the University of Buffalo’s Charles Mitchell, and Princeton’s Lauren Sallan, and visits to fossil sites from Quebec to Cincinnati, the author carefully considers the effects of the carbon-silicate cycle, volcanic eruptions, asteroids, and the evolution of land plants. The book recounts over and over the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions while illustrating that it’s not just one thing that brings about mass extinctions." (Source: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions, Christine Baleshta, Washington Independent Review of Books)


Two Major Catastrophes, an Asteroid Strike and a Volcanic Eruption, Did in the Dinosaurs

"The author provides an overview of the five major extinction events that have occurred over the last 500 million years, evidence of which are revealed by the fossil record and appear to be correlated with major geological shifts. The most recent event, the extinction of dinosaurs, provides a case in point. The dominant form of life on Earth for more than 200 million years, they were likely felled by two major catastrophes that occurred around 66 million years ago: 'the largest asteroid known to have hit any planet in the solar system…hit Earth…[and] one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever smothered parts of India in lava more than 2 miles deep.' Improbably, our planet has survived each of the five major extinctions." (Source: THE ENDS OF THE WORLD: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions, KIRKUS REVIEWS)

All dinosaurs except birds went extinct because of an asteroid hit and a huge volcanic eruption 65 million years ago
All dinosaurs except birds went extinct because of an asteroid hit and a huge volcanic eruption 65 million years ago

"He examines the so-called 'big five' mass extinctions, various points over long stretches of time when animal life was 'almost entirely wiped out in sudden, planet-wide exterminations.' He gradually works his way from the Ordovician period around 445 million years ago—before even the dinosaurs—toward the late Pleistocene, some 50,000 years ago. Brannen devotes a chapter to each extinction event and makes potentially dull fossil records accessible by talking with current researchers." (Source: The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions, Publishers Weekly)


We Study Extinctions of the Past to Better Understand Our Present, and to Prepare for Our Future

"We study extinctions of the past to better understand our present, and to prepare for our future. Are we living through a “Sixth Extinction”? Brannen investigates this question in great depth, documenting the declines of many large mammals that occurred when they came into contact with early people." (Source: Geomedia: Books: A witty look at "The Ends of the World", Callan Bentley, Earth Magazine)

Are we living through a “Sixth Extinction”? Brannen investigates this question in great depth, documenting the declines of many large mammals that occurred when they came into contact with early people
Are we living through a “Sixth Extinction”? Brannen investigates this question in great depth, documenting the declines of many large mammals that occurred when they came into contact with early people

"'I think that if we keep things up long enough, we’ll get to a mass extinction, but we’re not in a mass extinction yet, and I think that’s an optimistic discovery because that means we actually have time to avoid Armageddon,' [Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin] said." (Source: Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction, Peter Brannen, The Atlantic)

On the other hand, Guy McPherson says we've got only 2 to 30 years left and our disrupted climate is irreversible, so only love remains: we are dancing at the edge of extinction, we are screwed, we are so far beyond screwed we couldn't catch a bus back to screwed, and the accelerating damage is irreversible and irreputable. Who is correct, optimistic Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin or pessimistic doomsayer Guy McPherson? Peter Brannen lets us decide if we are in the 6th Extinction or not, after giving us a boatload of facts and clues and knowledge.

Guy McPherson says we've got only 2 to 30 years left and our disrupted climate is irreversible, so only love remains: we are dancing at the edge of extinction, we are screwed
Guy McPherson says we've got only 2 to 30 years left and our disrupted climate is irreversible, so only love remains: we are dancing at the edge of extinction, we are screwed


Guy McPherson implies we are so far beyond screwed we couldn't catch a bus back to screwed, and the accelerating damage is irreversible and irreparable. Is he correct?
Guy McPherson implies we are so far beyond screwed we couldn't catch a bus back to screwed, and the accelerating damage is irreversible and irreparable. Is he correct?


See Also: