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on November 4, 2007
Mr. Flygore and others have dispassionately summarized Under A Green Sky. Pardon me if I don't repeat their efforts. The significant theses which Peter Ward presents are: 1. geologically rapid climate change has been the underlying cause of most great "extinction" events. Those events have been, as S Gould hypothesized, major drivers of evolution.2. drastic climate change has not always been gradual; there is good empirical evidence of catastrophic warming events taking place in centuries, perhaps even decades. 3. the impact of atmospheric warming is most potent in its modification of ocean chemistry and of circulating currents; warming inevitably leads to non-mixing anoxic dead seas. 4. we are already in the middle, not the beginning, of an anthropogenic global warming, caused by agriculture and deforestation, which began some 10,000 years ago but which is now accelerating exponentially; though the earliest wave of anthropogenic warming has been stabilizing and beneficial to human development (civilization), it appears to have the potential for catastrophic effects within a lifetime or two.

Mr. Ward's other recent book, Out Of Thin Air, makes the case for changes in atmospheric chemistry being a major driver of evolution at the level of family and even order. This book recapitulates some of that hypothesis and the evidence to support it. I can hardly imagine that you will want to read one without wanting to read the other. This book is the friendlier to the non-scientist, made readable by an anecdotal science-adventure framework. In short, it's a pleasure to read... until you catch the spoor of Ward's dire predictions for our common future.

As a paleobotanist, Ward is well positioned to "see the whole picture" of climate change in the past, but he also points the reader toward other significant studies of the same events. One such is Tony Hallam's "Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities". Hallam is an oceanographic paleontologist; his research focuses on rising and falling sea levels, and on the causes and effects thereof, which he correlates very convincingly with extinction events, and which he presumes to be chiefly the result of tectonic plate movement. Ward's analysis based on atmospheric changes and Hallam's based on oceanic changes are, I dare say, more or less complementary. Both have radical implications for the current Darwinian model of evolution. Both have horrendously alarming implications for the fairly near future of humankind.

I note that Under A Green Sky is ranked 22,897th in sales on amazon, with 12 reviews. For comparison, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years - a book of politicized pseudo-science - is 665th in sales, with 131 reviews, the majority gloatingly favorable. We're in trouble.
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on September 10, 2007
Mass extinctions periodically reshape life on Earth. The best known, the Cretaceous - Tertiary (K-T) boundary, ended the reign of the non-avian dinosaurs approximately 65 MYA when an asteroid roughly 10 kilometers wide gouged the Chicxulub crater near the Yucatan Peninsula, setting the stage for mammals, including Homo sapiens, to become the dominant terrestrial vertebrates.

Another extinction event, the Permian - Triassic (P-Tr), some 251 MYA, is informally known as 'the Great Dying.' Up to 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial species were erased as global ecosystems crumbled. Life itself nearly died - and Peter Ward makes a compelling case in "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future" that global warming was the primary culprit.

The occurrence of mass extinction events is not open to debate - the data is in the strata - available to any researcher diligent enough to decode the physical evidence. Unlike some global warming books "Under a Green Sky" carefully examines the fossil and climate record to justify models and simulations designed to predict future events. Ward, a paleontology professor at the University of Washington, and a NASA staff astrobiologist, invokes runaway global warming as the primary driver of the P-Tr extinction - and convincingly demonstrates that an anthropogenic (human-caused) encore is the obscene outcome of business as usual energy policies.

"Under a Green Sky" recounts how scientists examine mass extinctions and determine plausible causes based on paleontological and geological evidence. After the K-T event was convincingly attributed to an asteroid strike, extraterrestrial (ET) impacts because the default explanation for other mass extinctions. Ward avoided the ET impact bandwagon and pursued a more nuanced approach by examining the fossil record in painstaking detail to determine if extinctions happened slowly, in phases, or all at once - only the last option favors an impact hypothesis.

If the pace of extinction rules out an impact event, what other agent could kill so indiscriminately across land and sea on a global scale? Scientists can measure past atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide or methane by analyzing isotope ratios in rocks and counting stomata, the microscopic pores found on the under side of leaves. Both methods show that a major greenhouse episode took place at the end of the Permian and continued into the early Triassic. On land Therapsids (mammal-like reptiles) made way for the dinosaurs - a topic covered in Ward and Ehlert's superb Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth's Ancient Atmosphere.

Life's nemesis was ultimately found on the P-Tr ocean floor. ET impact events like the K-T extinction kill ocean life from the surface down - and most losses take place in the upper half of the ocean. Surprisingly, to impact partisans, the P-Tr killer struck first in the ocean depths and moved upward. Dark bands in P-Tr strata signal the presence of anoxic (without-oxygen) archaea and bacteria - potent producers of greenhouse accelerating methane or deadly hydrogen sulfide gas. How did these usually innocuous and ancient organisms devastate life on Earth?

The Pangean supercontinent formed halfway through the Permian. Availability of shallow aquatic environments diminished, ocean currents and weather patterns were radically altered, and seasonal monsoons lashed coasts separated by a vast interior desert. These changes stressed the global ecosystem - much as humanity does today - then global warming triggered by the Siberian Traps, the largest known volcanic eruption in Earth history, initiated the coup de grace by delivering massive amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere over a 700,000 year period as the Permian drew to a close.

Temperatures soared 10 - 30 degrees Celsius (18 - 54 degrees Fahrenheit) as sulfur dioxide combined with water vapor to form acid rain. The ocean conveyor which carries warm and poorly oxygenated surface water toward the poles where it cools and is re-oxygenated before sinking and making its way back to the equator shut down.

The collapse of the ocean conveyer was catastrophic. Aerobic (with-oxygen) life in the deep sea suffocated as oxygen disappeared. Anoxic replacements quickly filled the vacant niche until the killing zone reached the surface of the global Panthalassic Ocean. Methanogenic archaea and bacteria produced prodigious amounts of methane - a far more efficient greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - while sulfate-reducing microorganisms released unprecedented amounts of deadly hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg gas) into the ocean and atmosphere. The sky literally turned green as oxygen levels dwindled, the ozone layer disappeared, and hydrogen sulfide poisoned animals and plants. Pangaea, already arid, approached desiccation - more than enough to drive the mother of all mass extinctions.

Fast forward 251 million years to the present. Ward presents three possible Anthropocene scenarios:

1. Humanity manages to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels below 450 ppm (parts per million) by the year 2100. Earth warms somewhat, additional ice melts, but sea level rise is manageable and life goes on much as it has in the past - but any pending ice age will be indefinitely postponed. This outcome, as Ward notes, is hopelessly optimistic unless a massive initiative to limit or sequester greenhouse gas emissions is successfully implemented within this decade.

2. Greenhouse gas emissions accelerate as China and India continue to industrialize; carbon dioxide levels reach 700 ppm by the year 2100. Rising seas have forced countries to relocate some essential coastal infrastructure and deal with regional population displacements. Scientists note that the ocean conveyor recently shut down - triggering climate and weather pattern changes that even politicians can't ignore. Famine and scarcity replace consumer culture as societal norms. The future is bleak but technological civilization may continue to exist if it adapts quickly enough.

3. Carbon dioxide levels hit 1,100 ppm by 2100. The result resembles the worst parts of the bible - no adequate secular alternative is available. Earth is 10 degrees Celsius warmer. All of the world's ice is melting. Sea level rise is measured in meters. Much of the world's population is displaced by rising waters and vital infrastructure losses cannot be replaced. Polar bears are long gone, Homo sapiens is the latest endangered species. The ocean conveyor shut down decades ago. Signs of deep ocean anoxia are increasingly apparent and appalling - the sky turns a sickly shade of green. The sixth great mass extinction is underway. Remaining governments fight savage wars over scarce resources as entire ecosystems collapse. Natural selection and humankind are brutally reacquainted when medicine reverts to pre-industrial norms. Rampant famine and disease causes a global population implosion. Humanity will probably survive but a second stone age is the most likely outcome.

Those who forget the lessons of history - majestically inscribed into the paleontological and geological record - are doomed to repeat it. Educate yourself, become politically active, and force our leaders to change course before an anthropogenic apocalypse devours us all.

Other excellent books on global warming include Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming by Chris Mooney, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change by Fred Pearce, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert.
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on June 18, 2007
Global warming, contrary to some, is pretty much a done deal, at least with a 90% certainty. Yes, there is a 10% possibility that it is not happening, or that humans are not the main cause, but who wants to bet on 9 to 1 odds, especially when there is a high chance of catastrophe?

It amazes me that there are still some people who deny that the process is occurring or that it is to a large extent human caused. Some go so far as to ascribe the whole idea to a secret plan to increase the use of nuclear power! But the evidence for global warming keeps piling up, despite their views. As a biologist I have observed the creep ahead of the seasons even in the temperate zone, and the Arctic is having an even more marked change. Numerous studies have linked the rise in temperature primarily to human carbon dioxide production.

Peter D. Ward is a professor of biology and earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. While studying the mass extinctions of the past, especially the Permian-Triassic, the Triassic-Jurassic and the Paleocene-Eocene, he and his associates have turned up an even greater threat of global warming- the release of toxic gases from the oceans.

In "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What they Can Tell Us About Our Future" Ward outlines the causes of these major extinctions. Once thought to all have occurred because of asteroid strikes, these extinctions were quite different from the Cretaceous-Paleocene event, which apparently was triggered by such a cosmic calamity. Now the three are more probably connected to naturally occurring high carbon dioxide and methane levels, leading to the melting of polar ice caps, the shutting down of the oceanic conveyor system, and the proliferation of sulfur bacteria in anoxic oceans. This is ominous, given our current rise in greenhouse gases, as the oceans then rose to cover the shore far inland in low lying areas and the atmosphere turned poisonous.

If Ward is right we are in deep trouble. He just might be wrong, but it would be folly not to pay attention! Everyone should read this book or something like it. It might change your thoughts on the subject.
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on August 12, 2007
The first five chapters of this book is a narrative of how Ward and his fellow scientists accumulated the findings that led to the hypotheses presented here as well as those published less than a half-year earlier in his book "Out of Thin Air", which I recently reviewed. But then in Chapter 6 Ward envisions how our thoughtless actions today are producing global conditions like those that brought on mass extinctions in the past. The remaining chapters elaborate on that theme.

In both books Ward convincingly argues that, unlike the asteroid that killed off most dinosaurs 65mya, the other mass extinctions were the result of global warming caused by increases in volcanic carbon-dioxide and methane. He describes how the global warming disrupted ocean currents which normally keep the oceans oxygenated, resulting not only in asphyxiation but in the production of toxic hydrogen-sulfide. In addition, in his "Out of Thin Air" he argues that periods of low oxygen drove the evolution of animals' respiratory systems which proliferated in periods of high oxygen.

The first-half of "Under a Green Sky" engagingly describes both the fieldwork and controversy geologists and evolutionary biologists contend with in their professional lives. In contrast, his earlier "Out of Thin Air" meticulously traces the evolution of virtually all animal lineages over the past half-billion years by referring to a sequentially highlighted graph of oxygen levels during each age. While this first-half of "Under a Green Sky" is more engaging reading, Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth's Ancient Atmosphere is meatier.

The latter-half of "Under a Green Sky", which was written early in 2006, seems mostly redundant perhaps because since then Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" is managing to initiate much of the action Ward advocates, altho he does provide some information I was not aware of.
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on June 10, 2007
This book could be divided into two parts. The first part is a scientific analysis of the possible causes for the great mass extinctions that have occurred over the past hundreds of millions of years. The second part makes use of the findings of the first part to speculate on what might happen to the earth (and to us) over the next few years, decades and centuries. Contrary to the common belief of a few years ago that mass extinctions were all caused by impacts with bolides from outer space, it now appears that most of the great mass extinctions (other than the K-T extinction) are likely to have been due to the accumulation of greenhouses gases in the earth's atmosphere. After explaining how this was discovered, the author explains the mechanics of how atmospheric greenhouse gases increased in the distant past, along with the disastrous effects on life that existed on earth and in the oceans at the time. He compares the carbon dioxide concentrations of the distant past with those of today with projections of what they might become in the future. The author's writing style is quite clear, friendly, authoritative (he is a paleontologist) and very gripping. I found this book very hard to put down. Although there is much speculation in the second part of the book, one can only wonder. This book should be of interest to general readers, but science buffs may get the most out if it due to the many fascinating scientific discussions.
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on September 13, 2007
The last 2 chapters of this book read like a depressing work of sci-fiction. I still have a hard time believing that temps are probably going to rise to levels not present on Earth since the Eocene. And in an eye-blink. Read Ward's book (especially his short interview w/ a climate scientist at the U of Wash who looks into the melting crystal ball), and follow it with a stiff shot of James Lovelock's latest release, The Revenge of Gaia, which has come down in price considerably.
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on October 17, 2007
I've always liked Peter Ward's work because he can write, and it's interesting stuff.

This one is also terrifying, arguing believably that Earth has been poisonous to our kind of life. And could be again. It reminds me of paleontological/oceanic horror by Caitlin Kiernan or Peter Watts, only they write fiction, and this is not.

The book is not only well-written but reads to me like good science, although I freely confess I don't get all the chemistry involved. Ward cites and summarizes a lot of research done by others as well as himself. And it's not just a political screed -- in fact it really isn't one in structure and tone, although since global warming/greenhouse gases cause the deaths... it makes its point.
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on August 31, 2007
Required reading for every person who has used the phrase "reduce our carbon footprint."

In one of Dr. Ward's prior books, The Gorgon, he presented us with an interesting account of how scientists DO science, but was a little short of the actual science content. With Under a Green Sky, he strikes a much better balance in his account of how the scientific community has gone through two paradigm shifts relating to causes of mass extinctions.

Most scientists now agree that the end-Cretaceous extinction (that wiped out the dinosaurs, among others) was the result of an asteroid impact, which created a widely shared belief that ALL the major extinctions were the result of impacts. Dr. Ward methodically and convincingly makes the case that the end-Cretaceous was atypical. The rest of the Big Five, including the end-Permian that wiped out 90% of all life, were the result of extreme global warming, involving CO2 build-up and shutdown of the ocean conveyer belt.

Dr. Ward is an objective scientist. He presents evidence, not ideology. This is not sensation mongering for ecofreaks. IF we continue to pump C02, methane and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at our current rate we might very well create the first antropogenic mass-extinction within the next two hundred to three hundred years.

Please read this book. Send copies to your congressmen. Your great-great-grandchildren will thank you for it!
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on August 23, 2007
I've not read Peter Ward's earlier books. They might have put me off this one, if the writing is similar. I found it tough sledding, not because it was unclear or because the material was badly handled, but because it was written in the language of a technical article or report: Precision palpably trumped clarity, and the inevitable typographic problems that crop up in every first edition had the very unfortunate effect of marring many sentences into lameness, contradiction, or unintelligibility. (For possibly the worst example, in text accompanying a graph showing units of square kilometers, the explanation is in terms of "square acres".) On the other hand, his treatment of the problem of anoxic ocean depths and changes in the ocean conveyor system are enlightening.

On balance, I found Joseph Romm's "Hell and High Water" much more lucid, and Romm addressed several side issues that affect the struggle to get political action on reducing greenhouse emissions. I give Ward's book 5 stars for content (narrow but thorough) and 3 stars for quality of the presentation, which results in my rating of 4 stars.
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VINE VOICEon January 16, 2008
"Under a Green Sky", by Peter Ward, can be difficult, dry, and meandering, yet it is ultimately a very rewarding work that illuminates how studying past climatic conditions can predict the climate we can expect to see in our own lifetimes, particularly on the causes and effects of global warming.

The chapters jump back and forth in non-chronological sequence, both for Dr. Ward's personal experiences, and in discussing climates in the far past. This makes the thread of the tale difficult to follow at times. Also, a healthy knowledge of geology, evolution, climatology, oceanography, and physical science may be recommended before venturing forth to read this book - it is not written for the popular press.

If you are interested in mass extinctions in the past, both from meteors and from climate change, and you are also interested in the science of global warming, this book is highly recommended, despite its overly academic approach at times. For a more readable book on the current climate change/global warming issues, I also recommend "Hell and High Water" by Joseph Romm.
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