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Snowball Earth Paperback – 5 Apr 2004
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The idea that the Earth has been completely frozen over by ice and snow might seem fanciful and deeply worrying, if true. Gabrielle Walker's Snowball Earth is the remarkable story of the theory, the evidence for it, the geologists who are behind it and those against it. The bad news is that it is highly likely to be true. As Gabrielle Walker expertly explains for the general reader, there have indeed been several such runaway glacial events. Polar ice caps, continental ice sheets and sea ice grew to such an extent that they all met in the tropics and our green and pleasant planet was whited out.
The good news is that it all happened a very long time ago, the last time around 650 million years ago and is highly unlikely to happen again, even in the distant future. Snowball Earth theory has been gathering strength over the last few decades and is one of the most remarkable discoveries in Earth science at the end of the last century. You might wonder why such major Earth encompassing and catastrophic events have gone unnoticed for so long. Well, it is a complicated and interesting story and Gabrielle Walker is well qualified to tell it as she has a science doctorate and has worked as an editor for Nature and New Scientist, so she has seen this idea grow over the years. More importantly, as she acknowledges has been a Snowball Earth groupie attending conferences, field trips, lectures and campsites around the world. Consequently, she has been at the coal face, seen the critical rocks which are now scattered around the world, thanks to an ongoing process known as plate tectonics which opens and closes oceans and shuffles the continents about. Walker has talked to the scientists involved about the evidence and the problems of their interpretation, so we hear directly from the mouths of the various horses. It's a fascinating story, well told and there are notes and further reading for those that want more details and a very useful index. --Douglas Palmer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
An engrossing book on the emergence of a stunning new account of events on our primordial planet ... fascinating -- Sunday Telegraph
Fascinating ... Walker tells a great story brilliantly -- New Scientist
Hoffman is fortunate to have a writer as gifted as Walker to document his extraordinary intellectual adventures -- Simon Singh
Part vivid scientific travelogue as well as an engaging account of a theory -- Guardian
This is a story worth telling. Racy and pacey ... a very entertaining read -- Independent
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A science book it is not. I should have read more of the Kindle preview. If I had I would not have bought it.
Stromatalites, very early forms of plant life, took carbon from the air and replaced it with oxygen. These are still found in a bay in Australia. Before them the fossil record shows glaciation. But samples of rock proved, due to the way magnetised particles had lined up at the time the rocks formed, that the ice covered rocks were near the equator, not the poles. Through work by many geologists over many years, these rocks were found all around the world. Namibia, Canada, Australia, Svalbard were all part of land masses which due to continental drift then lay around the equator. And they bore ice.
Drop stones are rocks embedded in icebergs that break off glaciers and are dropped to the sea floor as the ice melts. Geologists learn to spot them in the rock record. These, moraines, ice-scraped rocks, oolites, volcanic glass, pillow lava and more are all part of the picture. But geologists pick a spot and return to it year after year, building up a detailed study, jealous of their patch. So we have to follow different people - almost all male, but not all. Science works by one team presenting a hypothesis which is challenged by others who try to prove or disprove it. So we learn what challenges were presented, why this broke up many friendships and created friction, when Paul took up a previous theory that Earth had been solidly covered in ice.
Since ice reflects heat, a white Earth should stay frozen. The solution presented was volcanic activity which threw carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air, until the hothouse effect melted the ice. This appeared to have occurred more than once. Then proof of this had to be found in the rock record. This hunt and struggle occupies most of the book, with only a final chapter or two left to see what caused advanced life to form once the ice melted for the last time. I found the book easily readable but I know a lot of the terms and background.
If you are interested in geology you will love this book; if you are interested in biology you should also read it as background. A geology student may already be familiar with much of the basic content but still find the concentrated presentation useful. Anyone reading up on continental drift will also be fascinated. What I found many times over to be lacking was photos and maps. Photos of the mountain ranges, stromatalites and fossil tracks of early creatures. Photos, surely, of some of the geology professors. Maps of where the continents used to lie and how they might have girdled the equator. Instead we get a couple of contrasting expeditions the author undertook with professors - one in African bush where she got lost and one on a cold, rainy sea peninsula cliff where she huddled with a group to look for fossils. We have to thank the universities for funding this research by so many people over so many years. I don't want to mark down the rating for the lack of maps and photos, which can probably be hunted for on the net, but if a future edition is being published they would be a big help.
Even under Walker's admiring scrutiny, Hoffman doesn't appear as an endearing figure. Yet, the very characteristics some find irritating are the same drives that kept the theory of Snowball Earth alive. Walker shows how combative science can be, with contenders sniping and quarreling like feuding families. They all have fossils, climate mechanisms and glacial processes on show. Walker attempts to give them all a hearing, but the opponents make but cameo appearances. She gathered her evidence by extensive journeys - her travel budget must have been prodigious. Walker reveals their peccadilloes and their strengths. When you are done, you feel a sense of identity, even intimacy with them.
Whether you are convinced of the thesis remains problematic. Walker's own sketchy knowledge forces a pause, wondering about the validity of her presentation. Her admission of being a "Snowball Earth groupie" erodes credibility. She offers many assertions as givens, such as the asteroid dinosaur extinction thesis. Theory popularity is good journalism, but sketchy science. Her journalist role leads her to overuse of buzzwords - "Slimeworld", the habit of bacteria to form mats - achieves fatiguing redundancy.
The predominant question, which Walker addresses only superficially, examines what process life underwent under these conditions. There was life before the Cambrian - clearly multi-cellular. How complex was it, and how resistant to the environmental crisis evoked by the Snowball Earth hypothesis? Ediacaran life was shallow sea bottom or surface dwelling. An ice blanket a kilometre or more thick would have been devastating to this population. Walker and her "group" are unable to form a coherent thesis of how life achieved complexity after the Snowball's meltdown, only that it must have happened - otherwise "we wouldn't be here". A valid statement, but one needing further support for how it might have occurred.
Walker's personalised account makes engaging reading, presenting a new idea needing more attention. While various modifications of the Snowball Earth notion have been offered, final judgment remains deferred. This is a good, but limited, overview of the debate and the participants. At some point, someone qualified will enlighten us further. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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