The Southern Ocean, that vast body of water that flows unhindered around Antarctica, has to be one of the most forbidding oceans on our planet. Its latitudes are referred to by increasingly unnerving names the gale-force winds that have terrorised mariners since they first set sail here – the roaring forties, the furious fifties, the screaming sixties. Its waters are so cold that they are actually below freezing in places, with only their salinity preventing them from freezing solid (fish here have evolved antifreeze proteins!) As a consequence of these extreme conditions, this region has long remained unexplored. But, as historian Joy McCann shows, explore it we did. Brace yourself for a gripping piece of environmental history, marked by heroism as much as hubris, and curiosity as much as cruelty.
I thought I knew of the horrors to be found on the open ocean.
I was wrong.
New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent five years, three of which at sea, documenting the stories told here. What began as an award-winning series of articles has now been turned into a book by the same name: The Outlaw Ocean. In turns nail-biting and gut-wrenching, this brutal reportage shows the open ocean to be a dystopian place of crime and exploitation that is hiding in plain sight.
What does the deep ocean make you think of? An alien world right on our doorstep? The cradle of life? A global garbage dump? The lungs of the planet? Or the world’s most abused ecosystem? If I am to believe marine biologist Alex Rogers, the deep ocean is all of the above, and so much more. With three decades of research experience and scientific consultancy credits for the BBC series Blue Planet II under his belt, he knows what he is talking about and he knows how to talk about it. The Deep is an intensely captivating and urgent book that swings between wonder and horror.
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!”
Origins asks one question: how did the Earth make us? More accurately, like a six-year-old whose curiosity cannot be sated, there lies a series of recursive “why” questions at the heart of this book. Astrobiologist and science communicator Lewis Dartnell takes a big history look at human evolution and especially civilization, seeing how far down the explanatory rabbit hole he can go. Time and again, he grounds his answers in geology and geography. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds like what Jared Diamond attempted more than two decades ago, but calling it Diamond-redux would not do it justice.
Sea otters don’t eat algae. And yet, their diet influences the abundance of seaweed. How? Indirectly. Sea otters eating sea urchins (spiky animals in the same class as sea stars) eating kelp has become a textbook example of a trophic cascade, and Serendipity is a first-hand account by ecologist James A. Estes of how this happened. A trophic cascade refers to the indirect effects that ripple through a food web as a result of, for example, a predator consuming its prey. Simultaneously, the book is a searingly open account of how science is done, how ideas change, and how fortuitous events can suddenly send your research programme off in a whole new direction.
“It is worse, much worse, thank you think”. With these ominous words, David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor at New York magazine, starts his no-holds-barred story of climate catastrophe. Pulling together worst-case scenario predictions, he is hell-bent on scaring the living daylight out of his readers by sketching the manifold crises that loom in our near future if we let climate change develop unchecked. He proves a poetic agitator and I admire his outspokenness – I don’t think he is alarmist, but simply saying what many scientist are silently thinking. Whether this divisive approach is helpful is another question, and one for which he has been criticised. It is a price Wallace-Wells is willing to pay, because he thinks most people are not scared enough.
“A series of glasses with transparent liquids is in front of you, but which will quench your thirst and which will kill you?” Thus asks the dust jacket of Liquid of the reader. In this imagined game of liquid Russian roulette, one glass will get you drunk (vodka), the other kills you (kerosene), while a third will bring you no harm (water). But why? In Liquid, materials scientist Mark Miodownik takes an amusing romp through the chemistry and physics of the liquids of our everyday life.
Like so many teenagers, I wanted to become a palaeontologist. However, there was no degree programme in palaeontology in the Netherlands back then (I doubt there is one nowadays), so I was advised that one option to prepare myself was to do a Master’s in biology or geology. I choose the former and never looked back, but remained fascinated with the latter. Now, twenty years later, my job exposes me to many geology textbooks and especially Cambridge University Press has a wonderful output of advanced-level books that I really want to read. But when I reviewed Earth History and Palaeogeography some time ago, I realised I was out of my depth and struggled with the jargon. Is it ever too late to start over and make an entry into a new field? I decided to shell out and invest in a textbook to find out.
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.