Wednesday, April 23, 2008

David Beerling - The Emerald Planet; How Plants Changed Earth's History

The idea that the humble planet could change the course of Earth's geological history is difficult to imagine. That plants have changed human history is of course easy to believe - imagine how the European world would be without tobacco or potatoes for instance.

But plants have had a much bigger impact - the ability for vast forests for instance to alter the fundamental make-up of the atmosphere may, as David Beerling shows, have been the crucial factor in turning the Arctic of 50 million years ago, from a coolish region, to a tropical one where the precursors of today's alligators slumbered in the heat on river banks.

The role of ancient swamps and forests in giving out huge amounts of greenhouses gases like methane has oft been neglected. Climate models that ignore these factors often can't explain historical temperatures.

Beerling takes us through a fascinating history of the earth, as well as the story of scientific discovery. We read about Scott's polar exhibition that discovered fossils of ancient forests - and the long subsequent debate about why those forests were deciduous. Not having a background in the biological sciences some of the book was harder to follow then elsewhere - but nevertheless the application of the historic studies to current climate science, particularly in the light of rainforest destruction and a warming earth, is something that everyone would be able to comprehend.

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