Non-Fiction Reviews

Global Environments Through The Quaternary (2nd edition)

(2013) David E. Anderson, Andrew S. Goudie & Adrian G. Barker,
Oxford University Press, 34.99, trdpbk, xv +406pp, ISBN 978-0-199-69726-7


Marked global change is a key loose trope of Science Fiction, and so for the SF-loving scientist seeking to begin to get to grips with global environmental change they need to see how the planet has changed in the past. Indeed the recent past recent in the geological sense of the past two million years has seen the Earth in an Ice Age punctuated with a number of cold glacials of 90 or so thousand years in length that themselves are separated by times of moderate temperatures several thousand years long: we are in one of those now called the Holocene that has lasted nearly 12,000 years. Furthermore, some speculative fiction not only looks at global environmental change in a broad sense but specifically an aspect of Quaternary change. For instance, one recent example is the Northland trilogy by Stephen Baxter.

Turning to science fact, for the past two decades palaeobiology's importance has increased from being of marginal interest in most core biology degree courses to that of warranting a mandatory module by many. With current climate change it now seems certain that the Earth will warm by some 5C over the next 120 to 150 years (unless there is a most radical change in greenhouse gas emissions). This 5C warming is the same magnitude of temperature change, albeit one of cooling, that has taken place between today and the depths of past glacials within our Quaternary Ice Age of the past two million years. Consequently understanding 'global environments', as the authors put it, through the Quaternary is essential so as to begin to understand the likely biotic change we might expect in the future.

Aside from chapters on the tools used to discern past environments and pre-Quaternary climate change, this book covers the ground you would expect including: much on the Pleistocene (the Quaternary up to the onset of our current [Holocene] interglacial 11,700 years ago), glacial maximums, interglacials and the current Holocene. It's all good stuff. As for nuance, those knowledgeable about the topic will detect that the subject is being viewed more through a geographer's prism that say an environmental scientist's, geologists, Earth system scientist's or palaeobiologists. However as the topic is one that truly has to be approached in both an interdisciplinary as well as multidisciplinary way, the nuance is almost irrelevant, and undergraduate students do need to learn to make biology relevant to other disciplines and vice-versa.

This is a scholarly work whose roots extend beyond its 2007 first edition. This book's first incarnation was actually as Environmental Change back in 1977 over a third of a century ago and how has science changed over this time. This is this book's strength, you get to see how Quaternary palaeoenvironmental science (including biology) has grown. And if this book has a weakness and we are only talking about a minor weakness at that then it also stems from this historical approach, for some of the terms the author's use while may have been common currency decades ago, no longer are today. For example, today we invariably talk of the Cenozoic (not the Cainozoic the authors use). Perhaps the very worst of these is 'Little Optimum' which decades ago was replaced by 'Medieval Climatic Optimum' which itself back in the early 1990s was replaced by 'Medieval Warm Period' (as it not clear as what it is that is being 'optimised') which itself was replaced in the early 2000s by 'Medieval Climatic Anomaly' (as the warming really only was most pronounced in Europe and parts of N. America even though there were some marked changes in precipitation elsewhere). For the most part the authors do mention the modern terms (so students are not unduly disadvantaged) even though they mainly stick to the older ones (although 'Medieval Climatic Anomaly' is not at all mentioned). This old-fashioned approach to some terms will be of little consequence to SF-loving scientists seeking an understanding of natural global change over the past two million years, unless that is they are writers and wish to include aspects of Quaternary science in their stories in which case they would be well served to Google the term to see if their are alternates and then Google Scholar each of these to see which is most commonly used in recent times. Occasional preference for old nomenclature aside, Global Environments Through The Quaternary makes for a very fine introduction to the environmental biology of the past two million years that is suitable for both undergraduates as well as other bioscientists seeking a basic grounding in this topic not to mention scientists into SF wanting to broaden their academic horizons let alone bone up for genre reasons.

Jonathan Cowie

A version of this review will shortly appear in Biologist.

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