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The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
For many years, as fossil plants emerged from the rocks, it was believed that these records reflected changes in climate. Plants, it was assumed, had to adapt to variations in weather and other conditions. According to Beerling, plant life was instead the major prompter of climate change. The balance of atmospheric gases was determined by the micro-organisms floating in the seas. The ability to absorb carbon dioxide, coupled with the use of sunlight to convert that into nutrients gives plants the power to shift gas quantities. During the early days, plants exhaled oxygen. It was poison to most organisms, but those capable of using it began the drive leading to today's life. In this useful survey of all the forces forming today's world, Beerling traces how plants "changed Earth's history". Following his thesis requires the reader's close attention, since the organisation of the material is necessarily loose - not fixed chronology nor subject. The many topics to cover cannot be neatly niched.

To the author, the biggest mystery lies in the long delay between plants colonising the land and the formation of the first leaves. Leaf structure reflects how the plant is using energy. That, in turn, becomes a signal of how the atmosphere is composed at any given time. This knowledge was assembled over many years through the work of many researchers. Beerling traces the building of data resources and how the information was interpreted. Images of leaves and stems, analysis of the rock chemistry, field observations and laboratory experiments all contributed to the picture of plant evolution. Numerous surprises emerged, sometimes leading scholars to doubt the data and even their methodology. Looking at the life of plants down the ages is, as he puts it, looking "Through a glass darkly". Pervading his presentation is what the implications are for what is occurring in today's atmosphere - on which our life and those of our children, depends.

Beerling deems investigations into ancient atmospheres a form of "breathalyser", such as the police apply to suspected impaired drivers. In this case, however, it's not alcohol fumes that are measured, but carbon dioxide. Other gases are also sought, but they don't often leave sufficient clues. The information must be derived indirectly. Again, it's the plant's leaves that are used as the pointers to how ancient atmospheres fluctuated. Underlying the variations is the mighty force of plate tectonics. The shifting of land masses and changes in surface configuration leads plants to shift their survival strategies. Acting far more rapidly than creeping continents, the ability of plants to accelerate or impair rock weathering shifts the presence of gas quantities. Carbon dioxide quantities have varied markedly, leading to most of the world's history being warm times. Only recently - in geologic terms - has the planet experienced a cool era, which led to the "ice age" that scoured the Northern Hemisphere with massive glaciers.

As with so much in science, the revelation that plants drive climate instead of passively responding to it has produced at least as many questions as answers. There are anomalous circumstances that must be unravelled. The knowledge gained has led to the formation of "Earth system analysis" techniques using various forms of computer modelling. Many details, however, remain to be worked out. Atmostpheric studies are particularly impaired by lack of knowledge of cloud formation and distribution. Carbon itself, both as a greenhouse gas and as a component of plant growth, remains enigmatic. Beerling traces the selectivity of plants in choosing which carbon isotope will be utilised. That choice has impact on which plants will become dominant in a given area, which also has implications for the animal life living from them. There are no simple nor ready answers to what plants have meant in tracing life's development. Yet, as he emphasises frequently, these are questions that must be addressed further, and that, soon. Understanding our atmosphere is essential to our future. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This was one of the best books I read this year. It is superbly written, and makes paleobotany come to life with vividly historical details such as how the Victorian obsession with specimen collection handily provided a data-mine for scientists who are trying to understand how CO2 levels interact with homeobox genes for stomata. It also combines a rich story of geological events with plant evolution and provides one of the best overviews of how CO2 levels affect climate. While it is largely devoid of climate alarmism, you will think about the effect of mass extinction of plant life on our climate long after you put the book down.
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39 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
It is a very good idea of David Beerling to start each chapter of 'The Emerald Planet' with a short and clear summary. It is immediately clear what the author is arguing in the chapter and what it is about. By browsing through the book and reading all the chapter summaries, one gets an excellent idea what the author is arguing. This is a very good service for the reader who does not have an unlimited amount of time and wants to access if the current book is the right one to invest time in. Above that, it is such a pleasant feature. Compare this book with Oliver Morton 'Eating the Sun' which is a similar subject, but lacks that kind of clarity, then I prefer to invest my time in David Beerling.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2012
Format: Paperback
Until a bunch of upstart apes started messing with the climate on earth, three factors co-determined it: (a) deep processes within the earth, which set the pace of the long-term C02 cycle, but also determined continental drift (and the relationship between sea and land) as well as volcanism (see here OPPENHEIMER Eruptions that Shook the World); (b) objects from out of space; (c) plants. A paleo-climatologist, Prof. BEERLING has written lucidly of the role of plants, while not neglecting the other factors. I can only recommend this book which, as others have noted already, is very well and lucidly written..

"Paleo"-scientists are like sleuths: from few odds and ends of the past they try to reconstruct probable causes for observed climatic change. It is a technique-driven endeavor, and all based on ingenuity, and clever reasoning. To summarize the results, but also the convoluted search for causes of climate change is no easy task. Prof. BEERLING's has succeeded. He "takes no intellectual prisoners" - simply because the chains of reasoning are often long, and the conclusions often startling.

One cannot summarize all points made in the book, but here a few examples.

It took 50 million years for plants to move on land, 450 million years ago. Why it took so long is a fascinating story of limitations removed one after the other.

Once on land, plants went wild - oxygen levels rose from say 21% to 35%, allowing for giant insects. A scenario is proffered: it takes a whole chapter to transform what was once a hunch in a plausible explanation.

In the Eocene climate suddenly increased way beyond current levels. The use of quantitative models allowed first the identification, then the wholesale conviction of the "usual suspects": C02, methane, and what else. Understanding the Eocene climate has helped us with current phenomena, and vice-versa. The rigor with which the models are tested for past change does give confidence that current models have some solid foundation in predicting the consequences of apish behavior.

The most thrilling chapter, to me, is the one on the emergence of C4-grasses and their role in shaping world climate 8 million years ago. This chapter is astonishing.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
David Beerling is obviously a highly regarded scientist and this well researched book is evidence of his abilities. The book is well written and quite easy to read. I'm a geologist, more or less in an adjacent field to Mr Beerling so it was with special interest I purchased this book. It does give plenty of facts about plants and climate and how these have changed over time. I would recommend this but ... and I bet you knew there was a but ... there are some things that kept annoying me throughout the reading.

I can't stress enough that this does seem to be a well research book (though with some errors - see below). But there wasn't a chapter in the book where Mr Beerling's bias for anything British didn't leak through. I'm sorry, but Scott wasn't the first to the south pole, why try and make it as if really his journey was more legitimate than Amundsen's? There are numerous examples of this but the only other one I'll cite is his assessment of Marie Stopes. It is well recognised that she was a pioneer in coal science and women reproductive education but only Mr Beerling makes a wild statement about her poetry being well regarded; Although a great person in her own right, poetry was not her strong suit. In the words of 'Meatloaf' though: two out of three ain't bad - so why the need to make all things British be spectacular? It takes away from what are the great things that have come from the small isle.

One of the most annoying aspects of the book, however, was when Mr Beerling was citing his own work. I could always tell when it was his work he was referring to as there seemed to be special praise and a long build up to why these "UK group of scientists ... " did this or did that. It was all a bit too disingenuous and subtracted from the credibility of the book as a piece of scientific work. It leaves question marks over the other conclusions which are given in the book. In the end, I felt Mr Beerling was pushing an agenda and selecting research that would favor his point of view. There definitely was a feeling that Mr Beerling had a 'who's in and who's out' list of researchers.

There were some factual errors, which I won't go into here and only cite one. Methanogens don't break down organic matter to make methane. The actual process is that bacteria breaks down the organic material into CO2 or a few other substances and then methanogens convert those products into methane. If this relatively well established process is incorrect how many other details has Mr Beerling gotten wrong?

I'd suggest to others that the book Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (Popular Science) by Nick Lane is much better written, more objective, less self pandering and ultimately more credible and digestible than Mr Beerling's book. Finally, if you are looking for a book on plant evolution and how climate and plants really interact (and one that presents data and doesn't seem to be pushing an agenda) please get the book The Evolution of Plants by K.J. Willis and J.C. McElwain. Although Willis' and McElwain's excellent book is a text book it is ultimately more satisfying than 'The Emerald Planet'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Great book if you are interested in how climate has varied in the past and how that may have been mediated by plants through time. The author does a great job covering his basis and the book cites credible sources throughout so you know that this is simply not just an opinion piece. Overall the author made this topic interesting and provided a smooth flow information in a logical manner.
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on October 10, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
For me The Emerald Planet contained all the elements necessary for a good science book. One, it was written by a working scientist: Paleoclimatologist David Beerling who has published papers in some leading scientific journals as well as another book on this same general subject (but that one is priced way out of my budget). I found his writing to be readily accessible to the interested layman. Botany and its effect on the climate are the main theme but Beerling also touches on several other scientific disciplines that relate to the issue: physics, chemistry, paleontology, geology, etc.. He also delves into the history of this study, referring to numerous other scientist and discoveries made over past years. The book itself starts out with , of all things, the Galileo spacecraft that, on its way to Jupiter, needed a little help in the form of some slingshots around Earth and Venus. While passing Earth the spacecraft was able to scan the atmosphere as a test to see if our probes could detect life. The test was successful and led to some important discoveries about our climate. The author goes on to talk about plant evolution, how small leafless plants first invaded land and, when environmental conditions were just right, went on to develop leaves. It turns out that the chemical make up of the atmosphere ( carbon dioxide ) played a major role in that development. So, basically, we have a feedback system in place; things like carbon dioxide and oxygen, among others, enable plants and animals to live and develop while life itself gives those things back to the environment in a never ending "circle of life". I think anyone interested in botany, evolution or natural history and science in general might find this book to be a good read. I read this book on my Kindle and had no technical problems with this edition. However I did find an anomaly that may not set well with some readers. The book has numerous line drawings and charts that show up well on the Kindle ( in the text look for: "see fig xx", you click on it and the Kindle takes you right to fig xx). The hard bound edition also has several black & white "plates" but these are not on the Kindle edition even though they are listed in the table of contents and through out the text ( see plate xx) but you click on it and it goes nowhere. Other than that I'm more than satisfied with this purchase and the fact of missing plates does not diminish the text in any way.
LastRanger
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2008
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I found this book pretty remarkable. I had
no idea the powerful impact plant life
had on the development of our planet. I
want to emphasize the word "powerful!"
If you are a newby to the subject as I
was I think you will be blown away by
what you learn. I highly recommend this
book for those interested in getting a very
different view of the planet's evolution.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2012
Format: Paperback
Most readers of science know that photosynthesis is the primary source of oxygen in the earth's atmosphere. Yet, surprisingly, plants account for only ½ the annual production of biomass, which I assume roughly correlates with release of oxygen (Beering tends not to dwell on the obvious, or at least what is obvious to him): phytoplankton account for the other half (p.14). Beerling has more general interests than the impact of plants on earth's history including plant evolution, the causes of mass extinctions, global warming and cooling. What ties many of his subjects together is that plant fossils, as well as experiments with living plants, offer evidence as to what was happening and why.

To understand the book, especially the first two chapters, I had to resort to Wikipedia, and in one case to one of Beerling's references: weathering reduces CO2 by its creation of calcium and magnesium carbonates, and the deposition of these in marine sediments. The summaries that begin each chapter are very well written and should be read carefully. Did Beerling or an editor write them? If Beerling, then I just wish he had added about 10% to the book's length devoted to helping the reader out.

Following are some of the important things which were new to me, but this book has all sorts of fascinating material. The greatest mass extinction, 251 million years ago, was probably caused by depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, and its protection of life against radiation. The increase in available oxygen may have been responsible for the explosion of multi-cellular life forms in the pre-Cambrian (should I infer that more oxygen in the atmosphere led to more dissolved oxygen in the seas?). The major obstacle to be overcome before plants with leaves, especially larger leaves, could become important was to keep the leaves cool in the sun; this required enhanced evaporation, which in turn required the development of better plant systems to provide the water for this evaporation, and an increase in leaf pores to facilitate the evaporation. (Beerling attributes the original trigger for the increase in leaf pores to the need to obtain more CO2 as atmospheric CO2 declined, but it was not clear why this had to be the exclusive driver of more pores). The global warming characterizing the Epocene, especially in the polar regions, could not have been due to increased CO2 alone, but thanks to feedback effects, there were increased levels of methane. Methane and nitric oxide are both increasing currently. (On p.151 Beerling states our current climate models do not include the feedback effects on methane, but that is not true, and I infer from later pages Beerling does not in fact believe it to be true).

Photosynthesis in plants, remarkably, still utilizes an ancient enzyme, Rubisco, which is not efficient when CO2 levels are low relative to oxygen; in fact there was an explosion of C4 plants, mostly sub-tropical grasses like the ancestor of corn, about 8 million years ago when CO2 levels dropped: C4 plants have a structure to concentrate the CO2 to overcome this Rubisco deficiency. The C4 plants also do well in dry conditions as they require fewer pores to obtain CO2.

Raging wildfires in a high oxygen atmosphere, as an important cause of a mass extinctions, has been discredited. Wildfires, such as in the US west, do impact local rainfall adversely, reinforcing the dry conditions.
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The emerald Planet by D. J. Beerling approchaes several subjects realted to climatic change, geology and earth processes from an original standpoint of plants and its evolution. Mainly it argues plants are not only pasive spectators of time but did play and are still playing a very active role in shaping the earth history as well as its past and present climate.
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