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The Ends of the World

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions

Peter Brannen
Ecco
2017
342 pp.
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It’s disconcerting to remember that there are vast eons of geologic history recorded in the rocks just beneath our feet. Peter Brannen begins his surprisingly lyrical investigation of Earth’s mass extinctions on just such a juxtaposition: standing on the Palisades basalt in New Jersey, where a major die-off occurred more than 200 million years ago, while gazing toward the hubbub of New York City. He returns to this theme many times throughout The Ends of the World, evoking the image of rocks bursting with ancient secrets available to the curious observer.

Mass extinctions naturally spark our concern: What has to go wrong for the majority of life on Earth to die in a geological eye blink? When will it happen again? Brannen works forward in time from the inception of multicellular life through the many hazards of evolution on a geologically active planet, devoting a chapter to each of the “Big Five” mass extinctions of animal life.

As he explains, there are many ways Earth might try to kill us, from volcanic super-eruptions to less bombastic agents like greenhouse gases and suffocating masses of oxygen-free seawater. Brannen details these events and describes how they may have had catastrophic consequences for the ancient biosphere. He includes copious references to modern Earth for scale, as well as painting vivid pictures of the ecosystems that were decimated with each disaster.

JONATHAN BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES

The Dinogorgon Rubidgei was one of many creatures that did not survive the Permian extinction.

Brannen peruses highway roadcuts for fossils of ancient marine life in the company of both paleontologists and amateur fossil collectors. He journeys to the center of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico and to the site of purported tsunami deposits on a Texas ranch. In the book’s final chapters, he speculates about Earth’s future, using the insights of climate modelers and futurists to explore the near-term outcomes for human civilization. Further afield, he ruminates on the planet’s eventual sterile fate.

While Brannen paints vivid pictures of the many doomed players that populated previous scenes in the history of life, he also approaches the science of studying these lost worlds and their endings as the complex and evolving story that it is. He interviews experts who advocate for opposing models and presents alternative hypotheses regarding the historical context and kill mechanisms that precipitated previous mass extinctions, weaving a narrative not only of geological history but also of the push and pull of scientific debate. The integration of these two narratives, and Brannen’s care to impress upon the reader the depth of geologic time and the many unfamiliar biological regimes that have dominated our planet through the ages, are the book’s main strengths.

About the author

Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA