Like Antarctica, Greenland is one of those places that exerts an irresistible pull on my imagination. As journalist, historian and The New York Times Magazine feature writer Jon Gertner makes clear in The Ice at the End of the World, I am not alone. This solidly researched reportage chronicles both the early explorers venturing onto Greenland’s ice sheet and shows the reasons it plays a starring role in research on climate change. Some books ought to come with a warning about how binge-read-worthy they are. This is one of them.
One look at the title and you might be forgiven for quoting John Cleese. But rather than asking what the Romans can do for us, this book asks what we can do for the Romans. Walter Scheidel, who is a professor of humanities as well as classics and history, and a fellow in human biology, brings together a diverse cast of scientists. Their aim? To discuss what relatively young bioscientific disciplines can add to our picture of life in Ancient Rome as revealed so far by the more mature disciplines of history and archaeology. Which disciplines might these be? Prepare yourself for several mouthfuls as this book covers palaeoclimatology, archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, palaeopathology, population genetics, and the study of ancient DNA.
Cold Rush is one of those books that invites a facepalm and a groan of: “humans… sigh”. The Arctic turns out to be particularly sensitive to climate change – the extent of sea ice cover has been hitting record-lows in the last decade, polar bears are moving into new areas as their habitat disappears, Greenland’s glaciers are melting in record-tempo, and scientists are publicly worrying we will see the North Pole free of ice within decades. You would think that we would be concerned. Instead, the nations around the Arctic rub their hands in glee: “Look at all these business opportunities: new shipping routes, newly accessible oil, gas, and mineral reserves… oh boy, we are going to make so much money!”
Shelter. Yield. Dispose.
These three tasks, so says nature writer Robert Macfarlane, signify our relationship with the world beneath our feet, both across time and across cultures. Underland is his lyrical exploration of underground spaces where people have sought shelter from warfare or hidden valuable treasures, are extracting minerals in mines or knowledge in research facilities, or are looking to dispose of waste. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, the other being Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet which I will be reviewing next. But first, Underland.
When a history book leaves you reeling, you know that it has done its job properly. Climate Change and the Health of Nations is a grand synthesis of environmental history, charting the fate of civilizations and the links between climatic changes and the health of people. It is also a book that almost wasn’t.
When it comes to big volcanic eruptions, names such as Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens, and Krakatau will ring a bell. But all of these are dwarfed by a far larger eruption that few outside of the science community will have heard of. Noted geologist, palaeontologist and author Donald R. Prothero here tells the story of the eruption of Mount Toba in what is nowadays Sumatra, Indonesia, some 74,000 years ago. An eruption so gargantuan that it almost wiped out the human race.
At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instil a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:
“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.
And with that, she had me hooked.
Before plate tectonics became an accepted idea in geology, Lyell’s doctrine of uniformitarianism still ruled supreme (see my review of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century for a short introduction). A corollary was that the continents supposedly had always been where they are now. One observation scholars had to explain away was that the same fossils occur on both sides of the various oceans. Looking at maps, some people noticed the thin strip of land connecting North and South America and concluded that land bridges must have formed and sunk beneath the waves at just the right times in history to enable migrations (see Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth for more details). As explained in The Tectonic Plates are Moving!, we know better nowadays. Nevertheless, the concept of land bridges is still alive and well today, and palaeobotanist Alan Graham here introduces five of them, exploring their effects on biogeography, climate, and human history.
You might think that with the constant presence of the subject of climate change in news stories there isn’t much left to tell. But just because a certain sense of climate-change-fatigue might have set in (which is worrying in itself), climate change has not stopped. In Brave New Arctic, geography professor Mark C. Serreze gives an eye-witness account of how the Arctic is rapidly changing, based on his more than 35 years of personal involvement. And as he shows, there certainly are stories left to tell.