Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams step back from the current climate debate to look at the broader geological context. Geology can be a bit of a closed book to the uninitiated. But the authors have an easy style, which illuminates both the incredible diversity of geological eras, and how it is that geologists are able to uncover so much detail about events that took place millions of years ago.
What stands out is how fortunate we have been, over the last 11 millennia or so (the Holocene), to have a level of climate stability that can sustain agriculture, long-term urban settlement, and the whole panoply of what we call 'civilisation'. If Earth has, for millions of years, been a Goldilocks planet (neither too hot nor too cold for life), then for human civilisation it is the Holocene that has been, like Goldilocks' porridge, just right. Before then, the authors make clear, abrupt changes in climate, triggered by huge increases in CO2, were commonplace, and hugely disruptive for all forms of life.
It is one of the strengths of this book that current climate concerns remain in the background throughout the early chapters, so that when they come into prominence towards the end, their significance is very much enhanced by what has gone before. The authors are careful not to over-egg their case, but their geological perspective does highlight possibilities for future climate development that are a lot more unpredictable, and scary, than IPCC computer model projections would suggest. And, as geologists, they are acutely aware that the impacts will not stop at the end of this century. The lessons from geological history would seem to be that although atmospheric concentrations of CO2 can rise rapidly (as they have, at our instigation, since the Industrial Revolution), it takes much, much longer for them to return to anything like the levels experienced before the rise started.
This is the sort of book that, once you've read it, you want to keep going back and dipping into. It's full of illuminating insights and connections, like this one on the last page: "We typically pay insurance (on houses, cars), to guard against slight risks of major damage. In considering global climate change, by contrast, there is generally agreed to be a large risk of very great damage.Those who say there is no risk are simply wrong. And yet the insurance premiums remain unpaid. Crazy, isn't it?"
This book outlines the evolution of the Earth's atmosphere and how it encouraged life to diversify. So many processes and cycles are involved in developing and maintaining a supportive atmosphere with these being duly explained so you can create your own picture. This book could easily serve as a crash course in Earth history but, at whatever level you are at, you will learn something interesting.
I like this little book. The presentation is logical, lucid and written in plain English. There are relevant diagrams or B&W photos in each chapter to help illustrate the data. It tells us simply and unemotionally about the geologic history of the world and how this has influenced and interacted with the climate.
The worrying part of it is how over the last thousand years it was clear that we were steadily getting colder, but about a hundred or so years ago suddenly the temperatures began to rise rapidly and this is accompanied by a consistent increase in sea levels, and greater energy in all the weather systems.
The science is unambiguous, and the evidence is there for us to see. It should be recommended reading for all of us to give us enough unbiased information to allow us to make up our own minds on the topic.
A fascinating volume, which deals with the 4 billion-year history of our wonderful; arguably unique - amazing planet. It appeals on so many levels, with wonderful descriptive passages that use a vast variety of technological discussions that are conveyed in a readable, easy-to-understand yet succinct format. I appreciate that there is still so much that is not known and so many secrets that our massive computing power cannot even begin to model yet alone clarify - however, what fascinated me was the fact that it's almost like a billion-year detective novel with the skills of chemists, geologists, astronomers, mathematicians and so on; or simply intelligent curious people who by dogged determination made amazing advances about our understanding of the Earth's development.
Sadly, I wonder just how many of us use the time and the opportunity to marvel at how fantastic our pleasant blue planet is - or if we all quietly go about our work, pay our mortgages and so on; never finding time to see the amazing star field, the rolling fields, majestic strata of rocks and so on. I worry that the Earth is in more danger now than ever before in its history, and the last chapter paints a compelling yet worrying case for what awaits mankind over the next couple of centuries - and beyond. Moreover, I suspect the Earth is already supporting more humans than would be ideal, and any item of news, these days, will contain horror stories of terrible natural disasters fed by saturated population densities, denudation of natural protection like forests; and encroachment by natural water courses and flood plains and so on. Then, of course, we have the array of shocking and ever increasingly imaginative means that we have of visiting terrible atrocities on each other. I can't help but think there won't be any room left for the odd Tiger, Polar bear and so forth when we don't seem to be able to tolerate one another very well. In addition, for all our amazing technology, none of it seems to be directed to actually helping the Earth or even on buying time until we can perhaps discover other pleasant planets. Most vitally, we do not seem to be a particularly happy bunch and for all our advances we do not seem to be more fulfilled or more content in our daily lives - quite the reverse.
So, all in all an enjoyable and entertaining read about an amazing, possibly unique, planet - shame about the humans! Many thanks.
I mostly liked this book. It attempts, and succeeds as far as anyone can at present, in describing the history of the Earth's climate over the last 4 billion years. What becomes apparent is that our planet has not always been a Goldilocks planet in a Goldilocks universe ( The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?). There is no guarantee that it will stay a Goldilocks planet in the future.
There are huge forces in play- and they apply across the whole planet. We know some of these factors- the sun's activity, heat distribution around Earth, the sea, ocean currents, clouds, greenhouse gases, the albedo effect of ice at both poles, wind, various periodic phenomena and cycles, and then the effects of biological organisms- both big and small. We have partial models of how things work, and can partially distinguish causes, effects and correlations.
The sheer difficulty of getting information about past climates is well described. The science involved in the detailed measurements being made in well described. There's a lot of ingenuity, and physical grit, gone into getting the samples, making measurements and making decent inferences from them. And all the measurements have limitations both in terms of their primary accuracy and in terms of whether the measurement actually reflects what we really want to know. There are many significant sampling issues- the specimens needed are not that easily found, and recovered, and so there are not that many of them- which always leaves a question about generalisability of results. The authors acknowledge well the limits of the available data.
The book captures well the excitement, and the uncertainty involved in our thinking about the Earth's climate. The potential within all geology and climate science for there to be extra factors in play, which can go unremarked, unaccounted and unmeasured and which can confound results is noted throughout the book. The planet seems to have had ways of regulating itself that have worked well for millennia, albeit slowly, and over geological time frames. James Lovelock in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earthproposed that like animals planets possess negative feedback loops that function like homeostasis in biology.
The final chapter looks at whether the Earth's homeostatic mechanisms are about to be overwhelmed by rising carbon dioxide levels. The author's answer is a definite yes here, but I think they have let their long term perspective go here, and the climate change sceptics may have more to contribute to the debate on this than expected. I wasn't convinced by their last chapter, or that it followed on from the ones that had preceded it.
This is a good book about scientific discovery and description, and a good attempt to summarise much material into a small book. I think the authors succeed well in this task. Whether past performance of the climate will be a good predictor of its future performance is still not clear.
I have always thought that we should pay more attention to the Geologists when we want to learn about Climate Change, rather than the somewhat less authoritative outpourings of Railway Engineers.
The Geologist takes a long, calm look at the changes over millions (if not billions) of years, and (from this book) we can see a splendid chart (page 16 of the paperback) that shows that for the past 4 billion years or so, the average temperature of the planet has been dropping, but that there are also periods of increase as well as periods of decrease in temperature. We appear to currently be in a period of (relative) increase, although overall we are in a colder era than much of pre-history.
The causes of climate change are reviewed at various times in the dim and distant past - and these can be seen to be due to changes in the Sun, outpourings of microbial methane, positive feedback effect of glaciers etc etc.
Essentially the book shows that historically the climate changes. The change is due to a wide variety of factors, and any specific focus, such as on the past few years, or on specific gases (e.g. CO2) ignores the long (and well documented) history of the climate on a huge scale.
Superbly written, complex processes explained simply, excellent balance between details and readability. Insight not only into what we know about climate and geology throughout the history of the Earth, but also how it could be figured out. The story follows the historical timeline (no confusing jumps back and forth) but with many illuminating references back to similarities in different geological periods. Also the authors introduce the basic, recurring geological processes very didactically along the way. Not surprisingly, the last chapter is on the future, where I expected the usual warnings about climate change - but it turned out to be a fascinating chapter, too! Highly recommended.
This isn't, thankfully, another book about how terrible man-made global warming is, or how global warming isn't a man-made phenomenon - seemingly the only two valid current positions. Instead, it calmly discusses our planet's climate changes through it's entire history (or at least as much as can be discovered from our geology - the hot spells, the ice ages, and the huge "Goldilocks" swathes in between. It's a fascinating read, relatively easy to read (though some science understanding would be helpful), if a little dry at times. It's a book that those shrill voices on both sides of the climate change argument should be forced to read - facts, not hyperbole.