Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

THE ENDS OF THE WORLD: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

  • Written by  Jon Wright
  • Published in Books
THE ENDS OF THE WORLD: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions
08 Dec
by Peter Brannen • Polity Books • £16.99

Whatever their faults, dinosaurs have enjoyed good PR over the years, with the result that their extinction has overshadowed a number of similar Armageddon-type events – four, to be precise, occurring at staggered intervals over a mind-bendingly long period. One – the late Devonian – took between 20 and 25 million years to play out; further evidence, if it were required, that the story of planet Earth is not the story of homo sapiens.

While less special-effects driven than the extra-terrestrial impact that did for the dinosaurs, what all these apocalypses have in common is ‘violent changes to the planet’s carbon cycle’. In fact, says Peter Brannen, carbon dioxide-driven global warming ‘is an experiment that the Earth has already run many times in the deep past’ with results that it’s worth taking note of.

As he assesses the various theories behind these different events, it becomes clear that life has always involved a race between extinction and speciation; if new species can evolve faster than extinction rates, then life wins. That aside, experts disagree on much of the ground at stake. It’s long been somewhat disreputable, in scientific circles, to think in terms of sudden, eye-blink events: it smacks of Biblical destruction. It was not until 1980, then, when the link was made between a strike by a six-mile-wide asteroid and the death of the dinosaurs that the notion gained respectability, and while the strike that Brannen describes is now largely accepted – an impact so massive (100 million megatons), and so instantaneous, that there are ‘probably little bits of dinosaur bone up on the moon’ – dissenting voices remain.

Some of these can be readily ignored (depressingly, he notes, the Creation Museum, with its ‘dioramas of tyrannosaurs boarding Noah’s Ark’, is flourishing); for a fascinating overview of the others, read his book.

Click here to purchase The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and our Quest to Understand the Earth's Past Mass Extinctions on Amazon

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...


Tom Chivers is a writer, publisher and arts producer. His…


Our nonfiction reviews for Septemer 


Journalist, author and humanitarian Tara Kangarlou spent four years reporting…


Jonathan Drori CBE FRGS is the author of the international…


Explore the month's best nonfiction reads 


by Jonathan Drori, illustrated by Lucille Clerc • Laurence King Publishing


Your monthly dose of recommended nonfiction reads for June