June 19, 2020KR Reviews

On The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions. New York, NY: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017. 336 pages. $27.99.

In ancient Ohio, in the Age of Fishes, one fish ruled them all. Armored, guillotine-mouthed, and “the length of a Winnebago,” its double-hinged maw opened so powerfully that it inhaled prey before crashing down its bony blades. And then, suddenly, it didn’t.

The Dunkleosteus disappeared, along with most other life, 374 million years ago in one of the worst mass extinctions in Earth’s history. In his recent book, journalist Peter Brannen researches the causes and casualties of this apocalyptic event, along with the four other mass extinctions that round out the “Big Five.” The thesis of The Ends of the World is an enticing one: previous mass extinction events are case studies for deciphering the predicament of our present Earth.

Behind the Seussian creatures is a deep interest in the details of how, on a handful of occasions, the Earth killed more than half its species. The focus on the geologic and biologic mechanisms of extinction is what distinguishes The Ends of the World. Description alone doesn’t lend itself to action, but understanding mechanism might. When we know how something works—and how it breaks—we have a chance of fixing it.

To talk compellingly about these mechanisms, Brannen introduces readers to scientists. We meet Lauren Sallan, a world-class expert on ancient fish like the Dunkleosteus, on the side of Interstate 68 in Maryland. Ecstatically plucking a chunk of glacial rock from the road cut, she describes an inhospitable climate where “there were glaciers at sea level in the tropics.” Despite the evidence, Sallan has had trouble convincing colleagues of the extremity of climate change during the Late Devonian mass extinction. She jokes of her souvenir, “now I guess I can just throw this rock at them, and then when they’re in the hospital they’ll believe me.’”

At the core of mass extinction mechanisms is the infamous molecule carbon dioxide, as part of the carbonate-silicate cycle. Brannen offers a lucid primer on how this cycle of weather, erosion, plankton, and rock acts as a thermostat for the planet. The carbon dioxide humans inject into the atmosphere by burning coal and petroleum will form calcium carbonate limestone, eventually. “The problem,” explains paleontologist Jonathan Payne, “is that the timescale for that is 100,000 years. Which doesn’t help people.”

Humans aren’t the first organisms to wreak havoc on the global climate. Trees are the suspiring culprit behind Sallan’s rogue glaciers, and Brannen articulates the effects of evolving plant life with a bewitching causal clarity. Roots broke up rocks, creating soils. Nutrient-rich soils washed into the oceans, feeding massive plankton blooms that depleted the oceans of oxygen, killing sea life. Simultaneous to these ancient dead zones, photosynthesis pulled colossal quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, lowering temperatures. In The Ends of the World, Brannen distills mechanisms to their essence yet retains sufficient subtlety to illuminate the intricacy of real scientific processes.

This attention to nuance marks Brannen’s interactions with scientists as genuine. The academics and the ardent amateurs—rockhounds from the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers, to the retired engineer who tends the museum-quality Red Hill Fossil Display above a Pennsylvania town hall—are met in good faith. They appear neither as simple mouthpieces for facts, though they are knowledgeable, nor to fulfill a mad scientist type, though many are unorthodox. Instead, they embody the process of inquiry and the “very human job of interpreting data.” Brannen skillfully moderates multiple views and frames open questions. Out of what could feel fragmented or frustratingly incomplete, Brannen develops a satisfyingly complex narrative. The Ends of the World is a rich portrait of a scientific field: continually questioning, but with bearing on broader conversations.

Much conversation surrounding climate change fixates on human history and on predicting what will happen in our future. The Ends of the World redraws the boundaries of this conversation. Human history fades to a sliver within an expanded timeline. Forgettable hundreds of millions of years are quickened with bizarre creatures and spiked with catastrophic climate swings. Our notion of a stable climate is revealed to be an illusion of scale: what we typically consider history is a mere geological instant. The Earth has been many different worlds and hosted staggering diversity. It is not a static stage for our mortal drama. The world humans desperately want to preserve is only the latest version, the one to which we are accustomed. And one which is habitable.

Within Earth’s saga, humans hold a dubious distinction. We eject carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate “ten times faster than the worst events in Earth’s history,” according to geoscientist Lee Kump. Rates, as it turns out, are what really matter. With time, the carbonate-silicate cycle can restore balance, but at a geological rate, the rate at which rocks weather and form. Whereas continental flood basalts injected vast quantities of carbon dioxide during the End-Permian mass extinction, as paleontologist Peter Ward pithily notes, it does not matter if it is “Volvos or volcanos.”

As readers reach the Anthropocene, expecting to emerge from the deep geological timeline into a familiar present, Brannen instead creates an uncanny sensation. Time careens, much too fast. Coda to the rise of plants, the fall of countless apex predators, Snowball Earth, and volcanic eruptions from Nova Scotia to Brazil. Human history is rendered at once puny and utterly out of control. Alien to ourselves, “the ultimate invasive species,” humans reshape the globe in terrifying fast forward.

The outcome of this disquieting sensation is a productive reframing of current conversations about climate change. Or at least one hopes it will be. Action or inaction on the part of governments and the energy industry will, as Brannen puts it, “leave a record in the rocks that will last for hundreds of millions of years.” At once timeless and timely, The Ends of the World gazes back into deep time on this dynamic planet to illuminate our geological instant. The Earth will endure as its existence is independent of our ability to inhabit it.

Elizabeth Bailey is a scientist, writer, and artist. She earned her PhD in chemistry from Columbia University and her BA in studio art and chemistry from Kenyon College. Her writing—on algorithmic art, a forgotten female scientific illustrator, and the mechanisms of mass extinctions—has appeared in Scientific American and the Kenyon Review.