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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

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  • Posted September 8, 2011

    Provacative & Unique Recommended GCC Reading

    The ocean's thermohaline circulation is driven by dense, salty water east of Greenland that then sinks, pulling the Gulf Stream far north and then proceeding on a world-encircling journey. It has been long recognized as the primary cause of Europe's anomalously high temperatures. It is now also generally recognized that the thermohaline circulation is equally important at supplying the ocean's deep waters with oxygen; namely, the ocean conveyor belt mixes the seas vertically, assuring that surface-oxygenated water reaches the deep ocean.

    Peter Ward has traveled to the ends of the Earth in search of evidence for the causes of several major mass-extinction events - most notably in this text, the K/T (aka K/P, ~65 mya) , the P/T (~251 mya), the T/J (~200 mya), and the P/E (~60 mya) extinctions. Initially, Ward had set out to corroborate Louis and Walter Alvarez's blockbuster hypothesis of 1980 that a meteor/comet impact was responsible for the K/T extinction of the dinosaurs.
    Most of Under a Green Sky is a personal recounting of Ward's field expeditions. The author does an excellent job conveying the excitement and challenge of fieldwork under sometimes very trying conditions. Ward's humor is flawlessly blended with precise scientific field observations. He contrasts the nature of the K/T boundary extinction with what he found at other major geologic boundaries - namely, that boundaries such as the P/T, T/J and Paleocene/Eocene did not indicate a single, sudden mass extinction of many species from which the world rapidly recovered, but rather a gradual, episodic dying group-by-group ("insults") from which the world often took a long time to recover.

    Ward concludes that the major extinctions at the end of the Permian, Triassic and Paleocene were in fact due to global warming events brought on by the sudden increase in greenhouse gases whose source was either deep-ocean sediments or volcanic eruptions. The warming, he postulates, triggered an alternative thermohaline ocean circulation pattern which eventually led to a highly stratified ocean with nearly-complete anoxic conditions. These anoxic conditions not only helped to produce an amplified release of greenhouse gases but were also accompanied by the release of toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide (hence the Green Sky) which contributed to land-based as well as ocean-based extinctions. The gist of Ward's argument is that the current man-induced increase in greenhouse gases may be laying the foundation for a similar catastrophic event in our future.

    A few technical errors in the book were made all the more annoying because Under a Green Sky is otherwise a free-wheeling discussion not a textbook. For example, Ward mistakenly identifies Milankovitch as a Russian (he was Serbian), invents a new and impossible isotope of He (2He - he meant 4He, the most common earthbound isotope of He) and states, unnecessarily, that sea-level rise over the past century was only 1 centimeter (it was at least 20 centimeters).

    Under a Green Sky is a valuable contribution to the growing (but often same old story) literature on global climate change. Ward offers a unique, concrete, paleontological, and field-oriented perspective that is often missing from technical global-warming discussions based on laboratory data and modeling.

    Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 23, 2011

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