(2008) Robert Kunzig & Wallace Broecker, Profile Books, £8.99, pbk, 288pp, ISBN 978-1-846-68870-6
I do not normally review books more than a couple of years after their first publication let alone after half a decade. Nor do I often review titles that have not been sent free for review. (I feel I owe my reviewing time to such publishers given that neither I nor the SF2 Concatenation review team review all the books sent us.) However this book really does deserve to be widely read as it tackles one of the most urgent issues facing us both as individuals let alone collectively as a global society: climate change. Furthermore, even though climate change science is advancing at a remarkable pace with new insights coming out of research virtually weekly (as readers of the World's two leading multidisciplinary, Science and Nature know all too well), this book explores the pivotal historical climate science discoveries that fundamentally underpin current and – in all likelihood for a long time – future understanding of the issue.
I was recently given this book as a present by a close non-scientist friend as she knew well of my interest in climate change. This was rather brave as my study is drowned with human ecology and Earth systems literature, especially that relating to climate change. So my first reaction on receiving this (which of course I was careful to hide) was that it was the last thing I needed. How wrong could I have been!
One of the first things I noted was that it was co-written by the late 'Wally' Broecker. As the discoverer of the global thermohaline circulation or, as I call it, the Broecker conveyor, he happens to be one of my science heroes. The Broecker conveyor is a circulation of both surface and deep water (abyssal) currents that transports heat around our planet. It is critical to climate change for it can be altered both as to where the currents flow (they change during ice age glacials with expanded north polar cap) as well as slow down (more or less switched off) or speeded up. These can, and often do, result in marked regional (part of a hemisphere) as well as global climate change as sometimes heat can build up in the atmosphere or alternatively be drawn down into the oceans. This global conveyor also can carry carbon dioxide (our planet's principal anthropogenic [human induced] greenhouse gas and one of the important natural ones [along with methane and water vapour]) deep into the ocean depths as well as release it from such abyssal reservoirs.
Robert Kunzig is the other author. He is a popular science writer and science journalist. His contribution has been to ensure that this book is very readable at the easy end of the New Scientist reader level. But this book really is Broecker's story as to how he came to be a science researcher and end up making a fundamental contribution to what we call Earth system (biosphere) science: the study of the way our life-harbouring planet functions. Inevitably, as the authors have done their job very well, the reader gets a basic introduction to the climate change dimensions of the past couple of million years (the Quaternary) of this discipline. And what a fascinating introduction it is, made all the more so because it is told in an autobiographical, hence a very human, way.
Covering, glacial-interglacial cycles, regional megadroughts, carbon cycling, sea level rise, and likely future climate change among other topics, readers will get a feel as to what motivates us to engage in Earth systems science not to mention a fair body of the scientific understanding needed to begin to comprehend what the climate change issue is really all about. You really do not get this from news coverage or even the better of topical news television programmes.
While I do not share the potential optimism with which this book ends (sorry, I have little faith in humanity as it currently stands), this is such a useful book that even someone who regularly reads a fair bit of climate change science will find valuable nuggets especially in the way climate science understanding has evolved over the decades. As for the more casual reader concerned over climate change science issues (and there are surely very many of these) this book could very well be perception changing and most definitely sought out.
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