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The Ends of the World: Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses

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As new groundbreaking research suggests that climate change played a major role in the most extreme catastrophes in the planet's history, award-winning science journalist Peter Brannen takes us on a wild ride through the planet's five mass extinctions and, in the process, offers us a glimpse of our increasingly dangerous future

Our world has ended five times: it has been broiled, frozen, poison-gassed, smothered, and pelted by asteroids. In The Ends of the World, Peter Brannen dives into deep time, exploring Earth’s past dead ends, and in the process, offers us a glimpse of our possible future.

Many scientists now believe that the climate shifts of the twenty-first century have analogs in these five extinctions. Using the visible clues these devastations have left behind in the fossil record, The Ends of the World takes us inside “scenes of the crime,” from South Africa to the New York Palisades, to tell the story of each extinction. Brannen examines the fossil record—which is rife with creatures like dragonflies the size of sea gulls and guillotine-mouthed fish—and introduces us to the researchers on the front lines who, using the forensic tools of modern science, are piecing together what really happened at the crime scenes of the Earth’s biggest whodunits.

Part road trip, part history, and part cautionary tale, The Ends of the World takes us on a tour of the ways that our planet has clawed itself back from the grave, and casts our future in a completely new light.

256 pages, ebook

First published June 13, 2017

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Peter Brannen

6 books165 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 700 reviews
Profile Image for Nataliya.
781 reviews12.4k followers
September 4, 2022
With all the climate changes and decrease in species diversity it’s very tempting to see our present as the beginning of the end times for the world as we know it. Which it certainly may be, but Earth life has seen worse. Much worse.

(Yet, to quote a famous fictional mathematician, life finds a way. Which may or may not be much of a consolation to us as future cockroach paleontologists shift through the remains of the Holocene wondering what the hell happened to these weird bipedal vertebrates.)

As far as we know, in this history of life on Earth there have been five mass extinction events - End-Ordovician, Late Devonian, End-Permian, End-Triassic, and End-Cretaceous. We may or may not be living through (and pretty much causing) the End-Pleistocene one. Besides humans, quite a few other things caused the apocalypses of the past — from asteroids smacking into the Yucatan to proliferation of trees, to immense supervolcanoes turning Siberia inside out, to global warmings and Ice Ages.
“Animal life has been all but destroyed in sudden, planetwide exterminations five times in Earth’s history. These are the so-called Big Five mass extinctions, commonly defined as any event in which more than half of the earth’s species go extinct in fewer than a million years or so. We now know that many of these mass extinctions seem to have happened much more quickly. Thanks to fine-scale geochronology, we know that some of the most extreme die-offs in earth history lasted only a few thousand years, at the very most, and may have been much quicker. A more qualitative way to describe something like this is Armageddon.”

And funny enough, even if we in the short term manage to screw up our current situation by frying up the climate to the point that we cannot survive it, we will still end up in a serious Ice Age a few thousand of years down the road of time.

And then in the end, hundreds of millions years from now, as the Sun becomes brighter and our brief CO2 in atmospheric infusion will long have become irrelevant with the eventual depletion of CO2, even out cockroach successors will be doomed.
The planet will become increasingly shrubby, barren, and brown until about 800 million years from now, when carbon dioxide will drop below 10 parts per million. When this happens, photosynthesis—and thus plant life—will become impossible. When plant life disappears, so too will the animals that depend on them for food and oxygen. The rivers on these barren continents will once more flow to the sea in wide, sloppy, braiding torrents, as they did in the eons before land plants kept them channeled and winding (and as they briefly did after calamities like the Great Dying).

Even if the life-sustaining carbon cycle wasn’t petering out, at about the same time it will be getting unbearably hot. As temperatures, even at the poles, top 40 degrees Celsius and hypercanes lash the nearly barren continents, what life remains will burrow and hibernate during the mercilessly hot, months-long Arctic and Antarctic days (to say nothing of the tropics, which will have been long ago forfeited as unspeakable hellscapes). Perhaps some of these polar animals will even grow sails on their backs to dissipate the heat, like Dimetrodon. But unlike in the aftermath of the worst mass extinctions, there will be no respite. It will keep getting relentlessly hotter as the sun grows brighter. Plants will continue to disappear, and both CO2 and oxygen will continue to bleed away. Proteins will unravel and mitochondria will break down, but the winds will grow hotter still. This is the final mass extinction on planet Earth. On some specific day, at some specific hour, the last animal ever will die.”

It’s a weighty subject, but this book is anything but doom and gloom. Surprisingly, it maintains a rather light tone throughout, often infused with gentle humor while not minimizing the seriousness of the apocalypses of the past and the similarities to some of the happenings of the present.

It’s written at an easy introductory and accessible level, avoiding jargon and dry scientific droning, and even with knowing quite a bit of this material I still found it interesting and engaging and very readable. If you’re looking to dig deep into the apocalypses of the past, you’ll find it lacking; but if the goal is a simple and entertaining refresher (or introduction to the subject, even) with a bit of humor then you’re in luck. And I can personally attest that this audio really made commute time fly by, even in traffic.

I liked it quite a bit and would love to see more from Peter Brannen.

4 stars.
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,595 followers
January 25, 2021
Well, that was horrific. A really well written book on the five great extinctions of the past which makes you realise how much of the time this planet has just been a hellsoup of poisonous liquids and gases. The Permian extinction sounds like the absolute worst, though the account of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs is genuinely terrifying.

More terrifying is the thought that the root cause of all the extinctions is, basically too much carbon dioxide in the air. Whoops. We are deliberately recreating the conditions that have caused the planet to boil again and again and oh God it's sickening to read about. That and the acidification of the oceans, which we are also doing. And the death of all the megafauna already, which we did. Humans are an extinction event all by ourselves.

I suppose there's some comfort here in the macro view--that life has been near-extinguished again and again, that species die but new species emerge, that humans are really just a cosmic fluke rather than the centre of the world, that sod it, we're about to go into another ice age anyway. Maybe. In the 'but what is the world going to look like in 2050' view, it's really not comforting at all.

Still. Informative and very readable and some cool prehistoric creatures, which is nice.
Profile Image for Carlos.
617 reviews291 followers
October 1, 2017
What I expected: a chronicle of major natural disasters through out known history, What I got: a very frightening tale of the 5 major massive mass extinction Earth has gone through since life (microbes) ever emerged in this rock we call home . The narrative of the book explains the causes of the massive extinctions and the effects it had on the survivors if there were any, it then tell us that we might be on the beginning stages of the massive 6th extinction which would come about because of our disregard for earth and our ravenous appetite for fossil fuels. If that sounds like something you would enjoy I recommend you read it but don’t expect for a positive ending ....because everything that is coming climate wise is not good at all , not good at all...let the book expand on it ....
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,100 followers
March 11, 2019
For what this book is, it is good.

So what is it? An accessible rundown of the events of the five great extinction events of the Earth's past. Good for newcomers, decent for an update if it's been a few decades beyond your previous encounter with possible extinction causes... (remember the debates surrounding the Cambrian?)... and entertaining enough if what you mean by entertainment is the cognition of our eventual death as a species. :)

Okay, granted, a lot of the material is slightly glossed-over in favor of narrative brevity and facts and causes are somewhat light... but the book knows its audience... and it's audience isn't glamorous or snazzed up with buzz-words... or is it? Oh... wait... "emergent" comes up a bit.

Ah, well, no book is perfect.

Makes me kinda want to re-read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything or Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History if you want to get REALLY scared.

But, again, for what it is, Brannon's book does a decent readable job. I just kinda wish I had more descriptions of the life that is now long gone. *sigh*
Profile Image for Trish.
2,015 reviews3,434 followers
March 11, 2019
This book was quite different form what I had expected. For one, the author doesn‘t go too much into detail when it comes to describing the different time periods. Rather, we get short descriptions followed by how the period ended - and most of that is speculation anyway.

We start almost at the Big Bang before we rush through the different periods and look at one mass extinction after the other from a geological as well as a paleontological point of view. I did like how the author ensured the readers were aware of just how little time humanity has been on the planet when compared to the history of our planet.
Then we follow the author to several sites where important fossils have been found, where he talked to enthusiasts as well as scientists, thus also walking through time with him and therefore watching the land mass separating as well as the appearance and disappearance of algea, trees, molluscs, dinosaurs, humans and more.

One scientist‘s sentiment stood out to me: He said that, basically, we humans are what the trees were in the Devonian - our very existence triggering a mass extinction (the trees killed off the prehistoric fish). That, too, is just a theory - and will sadly give ammunition to those saying we shouldn‘t even try to do anything against climate change - but think about it: What if it‘s true and our very evolution leaves no other outcome? Personally, I disagree, because how we evolve also plays a part and we are not „just“ trees but have evolved so much, technologically, that we can change the outcome if only we are dedicated enough. However, I had never heard that theory before so it got me thinking.

Anyway, the author went on quite the tour throughout the US and talked to a number of very important scientists of their respective fields. He also talked to scientists in other places (such as Siberia) and gave us their accounts of voyages and discoveries that triggered some of the most recent theories. The question he seems to be trying to answer is if the next mass extinction (ours) is just around the corner.

Another thing that struck a chord with me due to what I‘ve been reading this month was the story of the Humboldt squid. I knew of the squid and how it was the only (or one of very few) profiting from rising sea temperatures, populations exploding - after having read about Alexander von Humboldt, it is very ironic that a squid named after the very scientist warning of the warming seas and advocating environmentalism is becoming a pest caused by human-induced global warming.

Thus, the book had a few passages that made me contemplate several aspects of Earth‘s history, evolution, mass extinctions and global warming. However, those were few and far in between. Moreover, the writing was nothing spectacular and I often thought the author was skimming too much, barely scratching the surface, instead of going in deeper (he could have). He simply ticked off what could have been, followed every time by the admission that we don‘t know. I kept asking the same question: yeah, ok ... so?

If you take it as a very light book, giving you a few pointers on the different eras and what died out at their respective end, what was left to us from those respective eras (such as gas or coal or oil) and what damage humanity has already caused in its short time on the planet, it works well enough. However, a beginner might need a few more details while a more advanced reader will definitely want more substance to the musings presented here. In short: if this book was juice, it would be watered down too much.

Interestingly, my next book is The 6th Extinction and I‘m already very curious if Elizabeth Kolbert is more poignant about the theory she presents.
Profile Image for Steve.
578 reviews28 followers
June 6, 2017
Great science writing that reads like a mystery novel

I loved this book. It has everything I like about great science writing, including clear explanations of the science, personal anecdotes and a sense of humor. Even more, the way the story is structured, it reads like a mystery novel and among the suspects are volcanoes and asteroids. This made the book hard to put down. I also found that Peter Brannen seems to have paid a lot of attention to word choice and sentence structure and some of the writing had a poetic quality to it. I would even reread certain passages because they were so well written. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in science.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book via Edelweiss+ for review purposes.

Profile Image for Hank.
820 reviews79 followers
September 26, 2019
Geology is boring. The rocks don't move, they are rock colored, basically they are just good for throwing. At least that is what I thought until reading this. Brannen has done an unimaginably good job at bringing all things geology, paleo*, geochemistry and all the other subjects I avoid, to life. His ability to weave so many different ideas and science into a coherent book is awesome.

Not only was it a great science read, it was entertaining. You could feel Brannen's passion and excitement for the subject as well as all of the scientists he interviewed. So many different personalities and ideas all blended to make a good story. The only down side is how dire the warnings are and how solid a case he makes for a really bad situation coming our way. It can be tough to stay positive with all of the evidence.

Climate deniers: don't bother reading it. If you aren't convinced by now no amount of rational science will sway you. Anyone else, this is a very entertaining read about past extinctions due to climate or otherwise.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,012 reviews226 followers
July 30, 2017
First, this is interesting and entertaining (albeit in a perverse way), with a friendly tone but unapologetic specificity, about the five catastrophic massive extinction events and how life on earth emerged again each time, in weird and bizarre forms and in processes that took millions of years. That is the point: extinctions happen and these are incomprehensibly vast time spans - a scale we cannot even fathom. While this is ultimately a book about climate change, the grand perspective of the entire book gave me a way to really grasp how short a time modern humans have been on Earth and how long these things truly take. Our time span is of utter insignificance. The dinosaurs were the apex species of this planet for almost 200 million years - they were the real winners and the losers.

And while it is such hubris to think we matter so much (anthropic principles and person-centered religious ideologies, etc.), it is at the same time such folly to think we humans have no effect on the Earth. Brannen emphasizes the observation of many scientists that the seeming goal/project/purpose of humanity on earth is to extract all the carbon out of the ground and ignite it as fast as we possibly can. That's sobering and true when one thinks about it. Just a stat: the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution (!). And this "project" of ours has never happened before in such a short, intense span of years - the changes usually happen on vast timescales of millions of years, while we are doing it 2 or 3 hundred years. Alas, every projection, even the most conservative, indicates that the world as we know it is going to collapse. Because everything is connected and the systems will fail to support our life on earth. For this age, anyway.

I did not know that a massive supercontinent like Pangaea actually changes how climate works, or that as the continents split and collided it caused massive changes in carbon, Co2, oxygen, nitrogen, etc., or that the Chicxulub asteroid impact may not have been the sole factor in ending the Mesozoic (the Deccan basalt floods probably contributed), ... and I had never heard of "hypercane" (a continent-sized typhoon with 500 mph winds which could happen if the oceans get warm enough...). There are lots of wonderfully-nerdy geological and paleontological facts and terms like these in this book that I will try to recall at pub-quizzes (e.g. that the new name for the "K-T boundary" as we called it when I was in college is the Cretaceous–Paleogene or "K–Pg boundary"), but the broadening of my perspective is what I'm reflecting on right now.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,378 reviews1,651 followers
November 1, 2019
Do you ever give yourself a panic attack thinking about scale? I mean, like the vastness of time and space, and the fact that we humans, or even all (known) life, only exist for the merest fraction of a second, in a microscopic speck in a tiny solar system within a tiny galaxy in a tiny cluster of galaxies in a tiny corner of the (observable) universe. The scale of time and size just cannot be comprehended. It's too massive.

So sometimes I think about this, and humanity's place in this crazy huge and mind-bogglingly old universe, and I think about the fact that we are in control of nothing. NOTHING. And the fact that one day, all of existence - me, you, millions of species of life, the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe - will cease to exist. And I have a bit of a panic attack. Because the scale of that loss is too huge to comprehend.

This book covers everything from the origins of the Earth to its eventual demise, at least as a life-sustaining habitat. It will still exist for a while, at least until the sun explodes, but will be uninhabitable, lifeless, and barren.

Welcome to my November mood!

I don't know why I find these kinds of books so fascinating, but I do. I love this stuff. You'd think that it would just depress me, that it would make me nihilistic, but on the contrary, it was actually rather uplifting. Listening to the story of Earth, and all of the drastic upheavals and catastrophic events and mass extinctions, and the subsequent resurgence of life after each one, was surprisingly optimistic. I mean. Not for US. But whatever comes after. :D

I've said it before - we're not killing the planet. We don't have the power to do that. We can do a lot of damage, though, and make it harder (and maybe impossible, depending on unpredictable variables) for us to survive here. Eventually, Earth will regulate and life will resume... just maybe not life we would recognize.

One of the things that I liked most about this book was how vivid it was. Brannen knows that most people aren't going to be able to comprehend the scale of the things that he's writing about here, so he makes it relatable. The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? It was a mountain sized rock that was moving so fast that the impact crater was partially formed by the AIR PRESSURE it pushed before it. It was moving so fast, Brannen compared it to a plane plummeting from a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet to the ground in 0.3 seconds. It was literally not there one second, and then the next second, the world was already on fire and Armageddon had begun. If you had been around and close enough to see it, you'd have been blinded before you were immediately vaporized, but you probably wouldn't have realized it. You'd have been lucky. Almost everything else burned or died in the earthquakes or volcanoes.

Anyway, I don't know where I'm going with this. This book covers a lot of ground, and covers some of the same stuff that I've read in other books on similar pre-historic topics (including a brief chat with Steven Brusatte, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, whose book I really enjoyed.). If you're interested in any of this stuff, I would highly recommend either book. They are both really good. One is slightly less grim though. :P
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,384 followers
September 21, 2017
Daqueles livros bem escritos que o autor vai dando dicas da conclusão e você fica todo orgulhoso de ter chego nela antes. Não pq é esperto, mas porque a linha de pensamento é bem clara.

Uma passada muito boa pelo que cada grande extinção do passado foi, quais evidências temos delas, o papel de cada fator (haja vulcões) e o que é controverso. O livro vai crescendo na explicação e apontando os paralelos que fará com o momento em que vivemos. Com direito a mega fatos surpreendentes e bem legais, como hiper furacões, terremotos de escala 12 (sim, mais do que a crosta terrestre pode gerar), bichos se ferrando e tudo mais.

Termina com uma discussão bem sensata das mudanças que estamos causando, das extinções de animais (que ele não consegue equiparar às do passado) às mudanças climáticas e a variação de CO2 induzida. Gostei bastante.
Profile Image for Quirkyreader.
1,536 reviews43 followers
August 16, 2021
This was more of an introduction of mass extinction than anything else.

If you are into geology and palaeontology this could be the book for you. It’s like a checklist of the Earth’s previous eras.

I felt that some of the explanations were abbreviated and not fully fleshed out. Hopefully in the near future there will be a revised edition with more information.

Profile Image for Cathy.
1,667 reviews242 followers
March 24, 2019
The book has enjoyable stretches, but in total was really too boring to keep my interest. Strange, really, considering that I am interested in paleontology, love to watch documentaries about Earth‘s history—volcanos, movement of tectonic plates, various critters, etc.— and frequently read about climate change and sustainability topics.

Not sure if it‘s me or the book. I sometimes disliked the flip tone of the narrator. And the book was a little to centered on the US to really appeal to me. On the other hand I learned something about the geological history of the North American continent.

I think one issue I have is that it‘s not clear to me what the book wants to be. A kind of travelogue with anecdotal stories about geological and paleontological history or rather light pop-science, priming us on the reasons and consequences of climate change. Neither works well enough.

At times informative and lightly entertaining, sometimes humourous, depressing and boring for long stretches. The required doomsday scenario at the end with a pinch of hope.

About the author: http://peterbrannen.com/about
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,735 reviews2,336 followers
September 27, 2019
Brannen's Ends of the World takes on the heady subject of Earth's mass extinctions - the epochs, the rise and fall, the animals and fossils, the shifts of plates and climates, and the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide and ocean acidification... Both as it happened millions of years ago and how it is happening now in the Anthropocene. He chronologically traces through millions of years of history. I've read similar books (Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction comes to mind), but Brannen takes a somewhat lighter tone on it, while still pressing the gravity of what we face now with climate change and ocean acidification.

Brannen is a science journalist with a geology background, and his book centers on interviewing experts and researchers in the field and in the lab. There are some great anecdotes in the book about field work, discoveries, and the newest theories about what brought on some of the mass extinctions of the past. His last chapters were about the crises we now face and how we can learn from the past to assist in the present and future.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,275 reviews228 followers
March 7, 2019
A science journalist travels all over the world talking to paleontologists and geologists and visiting sights that illuminate the various ends of geological epochs in the deep history of Earth. By looking at he major mass extinctions on Earth through geologic time it also focuses on the individual events and their similarities. There's also a very strong discussion on where our current world climate situation is using these extinctions as a yard-stick. There's some brief discussion about the types of life that vanished at each event and what life continued, including some speculation on why, but the focus is on the geology.

I found it fascinating, a tad depressing, but with elements of hope. In terms of the current levels of climate change, as the author says, mass extinctions are where you're worried about the survival of cows and mice, not polar bears and rhinos. We're not quite there yet. But it's a warning that's worth heeding regardless.
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews524 followers
July 3, 2019
What is not to love about this book? The author masterfully takes the reader on a tour of the five major past extinctions while highlighting the role of (what seemed like magical) geology. With each page, I could visualize the different areas of which he wrote. At the end of the book, I thought about a walking tour I had done in Florence. I wished this author would put together a driving tour that included all the sites mentioned in this book. Being from PA, I could easily get to the PA, NJ, MD sites he about at length. I might read this again and actually take good notes and take the tour myself. Beautiful book.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,765 reviews206 followers
March 11, 2019
Ancient history fascinates me, and no, I'm not talking about human ancient history. I'm referring to the life of this planet. And it's been a seriously turbulent, nasty place periodically. Science journalist Peter Brannen takes us through several major developments on this planet. While this includes the slow development of life in all its many weird and wonderful forms over the millenia (okay, way bigger time chunks than millenia, since we're talking millions upon millions of years). But more importantly, how close this planet has come to erasing the life that lives on its thin, watery and rocky skin. Brannen takes us through possible causes of mass extinctions and their effects, from the Ordovician to the one that gets the best press, the end-Cretaceous (or, the dinosaur smushing one).
While I often found Brannen's writing informative and interesting, I also found his writing style tended to verge on the hyperbolic and bombastic. That's not to say that what he was describing didn't deserve some bombast. It's hard to wrap one's head around the numbers of years into the distant past he was describing, and the sheer numbers of creatures of all sizes and sorts that have been eliminated on this planet. Not to mention that it's hard not to see that we're creating own serious problems, based on how little regard we have for the only place in this entire universe that we can currently live.
I wouldn't say this book is the definitive light science book on mass extinctions, but I did find the book engaging (and liked how it jibed with the facts that I'd already learned in courses).
Profile Image for Elyse.
434 reviews48 followers
October 25, 2021
The title is a bit sensational but the content was backed by interviews with many scientists. So I figure it's accurate. The author, Peter Brannen, is a journalist - not a scientist. I think his being a journalist kept a potentially dry subject from being a yawner.

It's the first geology book I've read to vividly illustrate to me the vast amounts of time that passed between each geologic age. I've read some textbooks. I used to work as a technician for a petroleum engineering firm around 40 years ago. To enhance my job skills they sent me to the Colorado School of Mines (it was within walking distance of our office) for Geology 101 and Historical Geology. It's the first I had ever heard of plate tectonics. I remember drawing little creatures (trilobites?) on 3x5 cards in lab. I was good at the drawing part. I worked really hard but only got a C and a B in the classes respectively. Sigh. But it was fun. This book brought back fond memories of things I used to know.
Profile Image for Philip.
1,439 reviews75 followers
October 7, 2022

So probably should have quit while I was ahead (see below), but while I couldn't focus on this as an audiobook, I picked up the physical book at the library just to read the last two shorter chapters on "The Near Future" (present through the next few - and possibly final - human generations), and "The Final Extinction" (800 million years from now)…and they are HORRIFYING in the first case, and just all around depressing in the second.

Great science writing though, and so now want to go back and read the previous chapter on "The End-Pleistocene Mass Extinction" which covers from around 50,000 years ago until today - i.e., the mass die off of all those big monster mammals - as I'm curious to see how Brannen's take compares to that of Ross MacPhee in his excellent End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World's Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals.

But then…enough for now; will certainly come back to again sometime later to cover those middle extinctions - but I can only handle so many "ends of the world" at once!

BTW, this book is an excellent - if soul crushing - companion to Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, as this focuses on the earlier extinctions rather than our current/looming self-destruction, while Kolbert does just the reverse. Wind and solar, people! WIND AND SOLAR!! Oh, and waves...

(ORIGINAL COMMENT): Lots of stars here, so the problem isn't you, book - it's me. Thought I could listen on my commute, but too dense to focus on in traffic, and not sure when it would ever rise high enough again in my TBR pile of paper books to get the attention it deserves. If Brannen ever does an "Ends of the World for Dummies" version, I'm there - but otherwise, afraid this is another case of TMBTLT.*

* Too Many Books, Too Little Time

Some unfortunately victims of the late Devonian extinction, found less than a mile from my old apartment in Binghamton, NY - when that whole are was covered by the Kaskasia Sea
Profile Image for Sanjay Varma.
340 reviews29 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
November 8, 2022
I did not like the author's writing style. Good stuff can be found at the paragraph level, but the author did not deliver any chapter that flowed well from start to finish.

The way that Brannen portrays scientists was a bit heavy-handed. He tends to present their theories first, and then introduce quotes from them at the end which make them sound a bit desperate like they're delivering a sales pitch instead of a cogent argument. I think the scientist’s personalities tend to get lost in this approach.

EDIT: I removed the star rating for this book.
Profile Image for L.G. Cullens.
Author 2 books77 followers
January 10, 2023
I was no fan of history in school with its biased, shortsighted focus predominantly on humanity, as if we were separate from the intricately connected natural world.

This book though, presenting an up to date and broad spectrum understanding of the deep history of our little blue canoe, I found well-written and informative. It certainly broadens one's perspective of our present environmental dilemma, and I believe most anyone will learn a lot of value in these pages.

A reoccurring aspect throughout previous mass extinctions of life on this planet is carbon cycle jackknifing, with life forms abetting often enough. Yes, all were precipitated by natural phenomena, not humans, but then again what is the difference between humans and say plants, both being natural evolved life forms — a trick question?

What can be seen in this book, is what we're in for if a critical mass of humanity doesn't wake from our self-indulgent complacency stupor. And, unless you are a geochemist, some of it will surprise you.

We should be thankful for the preceding thousands of years of a relatively stable climate conducive to human existence, that without the violent swings the earth has been through. How long this period lasts depends on natural phenomena, but we are at present seriously shortening it.
Profile Image for Andrea.
435 reviews158 followers
September 2, 2017
A curious comparison to The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, in my opinion. While Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer writing about humanity inevitably causing the next great extinction, Peter Brannen puts forward a very convincing evidence that renders this theory rather narcissistic. There is no doubt that humans will eventually cause permanent change to earth's biosphere, altering our own quality of life and causing numerous species to disappear. However, to equal this phenomenon to the past five disruptive events is comparing apples to oranges. Read it and expand your understanding of the subject beyond the black-and-white, simplified agenda that award committees prefer to endorse.
Profile Image for Becky.
308 reviews3 followers
May 11, 2017
Thanks to 25 years of visits to Yellowstone, I have developed a fascination with geology. This is one of the best books I've read on the subject. It includes the most detailed descriptions of the eras of Earth I have read in a book, other than a textbook. Because Brannen includes his reactions to the things he learns as he visits important sites and interviews scientists, he's able to explain difficult concepts in a way that anyone can understand. I don't see why textbooks have to be so boring when a writer like Brannen can impart the same information in an interesting way.
Profile Image for Satyajeet.
111 reviews329 followers
October 17, 2018
Essential read for the Fall!
Mass extinction and the End.
Really uplifting if you ask me.

Read this astonishing and terrifying description of the end of the dinosaurs:

“The meteorite itself was so massive that it didn’t notice any atmosphere whatsoever,” said Rebolledo. “It was traveling 20 to 40 kilometers per second, 10 kilometers — probably 14 kilometers — wide, pushing the atmosphere and building such incredible pressure that the ocean in front of it just went away.”

These numbers are precise without usefully conveying the scale of the calamity. What they mean is that a rock larger than Mount Everest hit planet Earth traveling twenty times faster than a bullet. This is so fast that it would have traversed the distance from the cruising altitude of a 747 to the ground in 0.3 seconds. The asteroid itself was so large that, even at the moment of impact, the top of it might have still towered more than a mile above the cruising altitude of a 747. In its nearly instantaneous descent, it compressed the air below it so violently that it briefly became several times hotter than the surface of the sun.

“The pressure of the atmosphere in front of the asteroid started excavating the crater before it even got there,” Rebolledo said. “Them when the meteorite touched ground zero, it was totally intact. It was so massive that the atmosphere didn’t even make a scratch on it.”

Unlike the typical Hollywood CGI depictions of asteroid impacts, where an extraterrestrial charcoal briquette gently smolders across the sky, in the Yucatan it would have been a pleasant day one second and the world was already over by the next. As the asteroid collided with the earth, in the sky above it where there should have been air, the rock had punched a hole of outer space vacuum in the atmosphere. As the heavens rushed in to close this hole, enormous volumes of earth were expelled into orbit and beyond — all within a second or two of impact.

“So there’s probably little bits of dinosaur bone up on the moon,” I asked.

“Yeah, probably.”

As I said, uplifting.

Profile Image for Maddie Gretzky.
67 reviews
August 23, 2017
I came to this book because I was concerned about Climate Change, and hoping for some context. And boy, does Peter Brannon give it. Each chapter, as he explains the lead up to and then possible causes of the mass extinction, he takes time to show how it is similar (or not) to what we are doing to the planet today. And make no mistake, our actions over the past couple hundred years are immense and long lasting:

"People don't talk much about what happens after 2100. On the scale of a human lifetime, the affairs of the next century remain hazy and remote fictions. But since the scope of this book is geological, the year 2100 is an insignificant mile marker, and the passage of centuries and insignificant blur, unresolvable in the fossil record. For tens of thousands of years beyond 2100, the earth will remain much warmer and totally unlike what it has been for millions of years."

If you're looking for a well-written, well-researched book to help you understand geology, this is an excellent choice. As an award-winning science journalist, Peter Brannon has the writing chops to convey complicated ideas clearly and poetically. He also makes sure to be clear about the many areas of earth's past where we just don't know what happened, laying out the various theories and arguments in a way that was easy to understand, while ultimately letting the reader judge competing evidence for themselves. Also, and this is perhaps critical in a book about multiple apocalypses, he's funny!

As a Bostonian (former) myself, I appreciated his references to New England areas, but didn't feel confused by his references to places I haven't been. On occasion, he would suggest googling something for a visual, which was always worth the search. And the photos in the middle of the book were very helpful in envisioning such alien continental arrangements.

Most of all, this book was humbling. I came to it after reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, a massive book that deals only with the 14,000 years or so of human history. This book spans millions of years, and makes it clear that life survives almost everything, even though humans may not.

There are no calls to action at the end of this book, and most likely climate change deniers are not among its audience (though anyone denying climate change would benefit majorly from perusing this text!) anyway. But it does end with a surprisingly universal thought: there is likely other life in the universe; it's too vast and complex for life not to exist. But perhaps we, on Earth, have been stupidly lucky to have developed complex societies: to have geologists to study the past, journalists to write about them, bookstores in order to buy the resultant book, and smartphones to write reviews like this one on. Perhaps the life elsewhere in the universe will not get to that point. Whether it will or not, it is up to us to try to preserve the planet we've got, for if we fail- if humanity dies out even if life, microbial though it may be, goes on- what was the point of it all? It is up to us not to betray that great shining future humanity has been working for for centuries, up to us not to sell it for cheap coal and oil. Isn't that future worth making some changes now, to try to avert further damage?

I think so.
Profile Image for Carlex.
534 reviews99 followers
September 14, 2018
Three and half stars.

(Sorry for my English)

Of course, the subject is very interesting.
However, this book reminds me too much a Nature or National Geographic TV series: many interviews, a bit of intrigue (which does not succeed), redundant explanations (in the series for the advertising cuts) and all these things. In other words, some superfluous pages.

For the rest, I consider that Peter Brannen's book deserves three and half stars because it has enriched my (poor) knowledge about our geological past and has given me a good overview of the history, present and future of our planet.

I have edited my review: the last chapter of the book has a very interesting topic: the thin line -the set of complex factors- that make a planet habitable or not.
Profile Image for Ericka Clou.
2,187 reviews169 followers
August 31, 2019
This is the sort of book the fictional Ross Geller would have deeply enjoyed. A lot of this was covered in The Sixth Extinction more briefly and more rivetingly but if you want the ins and outs of prehistoric life (not dinosaurs, all the other life) then this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Sheri.
1,233 reviews
June 19, 2023
I think Brannen does a great job of setting out the rough framework for the history of the Earth and the perserverence of life on Earth through the past five mass extinction events. He nicely minimizes the importance of humans (and the blink of an eye in which we have been around) while emphasizing that the future of extinction events is unavoidable but we could be doing less to hasten along the next. He set out to write a non-fiction, pop culture science book and he has done so.

I also learned that my vision of myself as tearing through books (fiction and non fiction alike) is probably not as accurate as I like to think it: I mostly choose my own reading material (even when reading for class, those are classes that I CHOSE), this book was "assigned" by my son and it turns out that he finds Earth science much, much more interesting than I do (for the record freshman year Earth science remains the only class in which I ever got an F on a test). So, this was slogging for me and topic/content wise is probably a 2 star...but I did get through it and I think Brannen has made this stuff as interesting as possible (likely much more interesting to others than to me).

My main take-away is that we shouldn't feel too badly about what we are doing to the planet because after all, it has been through worse and, even if we weren't crashing through the fossil fuel pantry at the pace we are, bad things will happen again in the future. HOWEVER we can (and should) worry about the ways that we are making this planet unhabitable for ourselves. Even if we don't kill everything off in a sixth mass extinction, the likelihood of humanity surviving much beyond the next 80-100 years seems slim. Not so much a happy thought.

Mostly the book made me wonder about the joy of ignorance. Is humanity better off because we know the probabilities and are aware that we are heading on a crash course to environmental destruction or were the sea dwellers of the Ordovician better off not knowing what was coming right up until the moment that their lights were extinguished? This, of course is a philosophical (rather than a scientific) question and one that is likely to vary by the person. Of course if we were politically united enough and (as a species) generous enough to care more about HUMANITY than our "in group" vs the other "out group" in the all out fight for resources, this knowledge might allow us to make changes and prepare or stave off, but I don't have enough confidence in my fellow humans to think the knowledge is going to do us much good...unless we figure out a way to engineer our way out of it.

As always, I shall leave with my list of most interesting quotes (most of these are fact related as much as well-said):
"even the Earth was a desolate wasteland for 90 percent of its history."
"the most stunning period of biodiversification in the history of life took place at the same time as the planet was being pelted by meteors and unleashing some of its most powerful volcanic explosions"
"Since the dawn of animal life, the End Permian mass extinction brought the planet as close to sterilization as it has ever been"
"the rate at which we're injecting CO2 into the atmosphere today, according to our best estimates, is ten times faster than it was during hte End Permian....we're creating a very difficult environment for life to adapt, and we're imposing that change maybe ten times faster than the worst events in Earth's history"
"modern coral reef systems...have shrunk by perhaps 30 percent since the early 1980s (an appalling, geologically instantaneous lightening strike). Coral growth rates have slowed by 20 percent in the past two decades, and devastating bleaching events---what happens when warmer water forces corals to lose the microorganisms upon which they rely for food-have become common."
"The decisions made in the next few years by the energy industry and the governments that regulate them will leave a record in the rocks that will last for hundreds of millions of years."
"hydrothermal vents have been positied as candidate locations for the origins of life on earth....perhaps the hydrothermal niches carbed by gigantic asteroids...were the cradles for life in its infancy."
"We find ourselves sandwiched between great ice ages, in a brief interglacial of warmth for a few thousand tenuous years, like the dozens of warm respites that have come and gone before. We should not expect this pleasant vacation to last much longer than it already has."
"That the human project since its birth, and human flourishing in general, seems to have played out at the expense of the rest of the natural world is one of the stark and unsettling discoveries of science."
"Today these tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution have given us a world where we have gained such mastery over the physical environment that we hold the knobs of the entire earth system---and are twisting them violently."
"mass extinction or no, it's our tenuous reliance on an aging and inadequate infrastructure---perhaps, most ominously, on power grids---coupled with the limits of human physiology that may well bring down our world."
"You've got to get away from the single-factor explainations. I suspect a lot of the major events in the history of life involve perfect storms. And we're one of them."
"The decisions we make as a civilization in the next several decades might influence the climate twice as far into th future as our species has existed in the past."
Profile Image for Igor.
107 reviews15 followers
May 10, 2021
Розповідь про п'ять "великих" епізодів масового вимирання в історії планети, плюс роздуми про сучасне і майбутнє вимирання, спричинене людиною (про що є окрема популярна книжка - "Шосте вимирання" Елізабет Кольбер). Як на таку непросту тему, книжка цікава і читабельна, зокрема завдяки гумору автора та живим інтерв'ю з ученими. Будь-хто ді��нається тут багато нового, навіть про найвідоміше вимирання - динозаврів (імовірно, там "попрацював" не тільки астероїд). Роль кліматичних змін навіть у майже всіх минулих вимираннях змушує замислитись ще до останніх розділів, які малюють не найбільш оптимістичну картину виживання в найближчі сто років (і для тварин, і для людей у деяких регіонах планети). З точки зору геології 100 років - це, звісно, лише мить; якщо ж говорити про далеку перспективу, то за 800 мільйонів років усі тварини і рослини на Землі все одно вимруть, як виявилось, і це вже точно буде останнє вимирання.
Profile Image for Casey Figures.
1 review2 followers
September 14, 2023
Horrifying, devastating, and yet, I have never looked at our planet with more awe. A beautiful synthesis of geological history, speciation, and applicability to today’s climate crisis, this book changed the lens with which I see the Earth. As we humans continue to destroy our world, there is peace in knowing that there is something about Earth that is so eternal, so regenerative, that there may still be a chance (however small) of life on the other side. Be kind to our home, we certainly do not deserve it.
Profile Image for Carol Storm.
Author 28 books192 followers
April 16, 2018
Fun book with lots of amazing dinosaur facts and eye-popping descriptions of spectacular geological disasters that happened hundreds of millions of years ago.

I really enjoyed this book but there were two things that really annoyed me. This bright young lad sees himself as a modern, secular, liberal guy -- he really looks down his nose at people who get all worked up about "centuries old religions." But strangely enough, whenever he starts dishing the dirt on those scary extinctions he sounds just like a backwoods preacher whooping up hellfire!

"Did all the trilobites die screaming? What about the happy, fun loving annelids? Just like us, they enjoyed their lifestyle of carbon emissions, and never thought about tomorrow. Suddenly, those sinful trilobites were bathing in a lake of fire of their own design -- just like everyone who voted for Trump is gonna fry, brothers and sisters, fry on a griddle of corporate greed! Can I get an amen for all the trilobites who voted for Trump?"

The other problem was less hysterical but just as annoying. This is one of those books where the author interviews dozens of scientists, all over the country, which is fine. But he always has to stick in a few sentences at the beginning just to let you know that, hey, this person is one of us -- he's one of the cool kids. "Biff Loman has been studying trilobites for twenty years. I caught up with Biff outside the science lab, where he was playing frisbee with his dog while wearing a classic WHO t-shirt with a pirate's bandanna on his head and faded vintage jeans." Yeah, okay. Just once I would have liked to see him interview a scientist who, you know, wasn't cool.

"I caught up with Dr. Carrington in his foul-smelling, one-bedroom apartment, which is all he can afford on an academic's salary. He was eating day-old pizza, drinking warm beer out of the can and masturbating to a decades old episode of STAR TREK!"

I think I could have bought all the global-warming hysteria a lot more readily if it didn't always come from the cool kids. You know what I mean?
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