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Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future Hardcover – April 17, 2007
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Popular science writer and paleontologist Ward presents breaking news about the link between past mass extinctions and global warming. Disarmingly engaging, Ward combines tales of his own punishing fieldwork with a piquant history of the controversies that have dogged scientists seeking the cause of the "mother of all extinctions" in the Permian period. This provides the foundation for a stunning discovery: evidence of past greenhouse extinctions. As Ward carefully parses the data and its implications, he observes, "the key to climate change seems to be both the level and the rate at which carbon dioxide rises in the atmosphere," no matter its source. Ward also illuminates the symbiosis between ocean currents and climate change, then explains why, as the northern ice cap melts, it is likely that the Atlantic conveyor current system will be altered, thus accelerating climate change. Ward asserts that humankind has flourished during a remarkable period of climatic stability and notes how tragic it will be if our carbon habit brings this boon to a catastrophic end. An important addition to the necessary literature of global warming. Donna Seaman
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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.
I first heard about this idea several years ago, when it seemed like a fairly far-fetched hypothesis. As Ward shows, the evidence has become overwhelming. Mass extinctions (except for the one that killed the dinosaurs) do not happen overnight. The dying goes on for thousands or even millions of years. During that time, sediments show that the deep ocean was devoid of oxygen. Fossils indicate that the animals that usually live in the deep ocean had also disappeared.
The real smoking gun is in the chemistry. There are bacteria that can live only where there are both hydrogen sulfide and sunlight. These bacteria produce a distinctive chemical, which is found throughout the world in oceanic sediment laid down during extinction events. This proves that the ocean was full of hydrogen sulfide, from bottom to top.
These events all coincide with times at which volcanoes existed on a huge scale. For example, one episode left lava flows all the way from Brazil to Nova Scotia. This would have pumped huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Oxygen isotopes show that this CO2 increased the earth's temperature dramatically, just as it is doing today.
The most recent mass extinction happened when the atmospheric level of CO2 was 800 parts per million (PPM). Today, the level is 400 ppm, and growing exponentially at 2% per year. At this rate, our CO2 level will equal that of the last global extinction event by the year 2044. Ward estimates that we will cause a global extinction within the next century or so. But things will get very bad for us long before then. We have only a decade or two to avert catastrophe.
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