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

Peter Brannen. Ecco, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-236480-7

Shedding light on hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s geological history, this dense and revealing volume by science journalist Brannen focuses on mass extinctions. He examines the so-called “big five” mass extinctions, various points over long stretches of time when animal life was “almost entirely wiped out in sudden, planet-wide exterminations.” He gradually works his way from the Ordovician period around 445 million years ago—before even the dinosaurs—toward the late Pleistocene, some 50,000 years ago. Brannen devotes a chapter to each extinction event and makes potentially dull fossil records accessible by talking with current researchers. In Cincinnati, Ohio, Brannen meets the Dry Dredgers, an amateur fossil-collecting group. Southwest Ohio “sits atop bedrock made of an old ocean seafloor,” allowing fossil hunters access and opportunities to study ancient sea life. He also speaks with Stanford University paleontologist Jonathan Payne, who offers insight on the Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago. According to Payne, it was caused primarily by ocean acidification, a problem that exists today when carbon dioxide reacts with seawater. Effectively linking past and present, Brannen winds down with projections for the future and a warning against inaction in the face of climate change. Color photos. (June)