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Title: An Introduction to the Earth-Life System
Author(s): Charles Cockell (ed)
Date of Publication: 2008 Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Pages:xxvi + 524 ISBN: 9780 5217 2953 6
Price:£ 30 Format:Paperback
Overview:
Target Readership Educator
Presentation/Style
Content
Literature
Originality
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Content: 1 – A habitable planet; 2 - The carbon cycle; 3 - Plate tectonics, climate and life; 4 - Mountains and climate change; 5 - The emergence and persistence of life; 6 - Life in the Phanerozoic; 7 - The earth at extremes; 8 - End-of-book summary.

Review: Whilst there are innumerable books dealing with modern ecology there are far fewer looking at the past and even more so dealing with geological time. Those that do exist tend to be very specialised and difficult to understand. The problem arises when we are told increasingly that we need to understand the geological past to help unravel the issues of global warming. This tension between the need to be better informed and the lack of material out there can be strong but there is some possible help at hand. This text, co-produced with the Open University, aims to demystify issues whilst maintaining academic rigour.

We start with the physics of the universe, or more accurately, the solar system. The basic assumption is that whatever has happened on Earth it has been regulated, to a large extent, by the Sun. The chapter opens by considering the discharge of radiation from the Sun and the impact this has on the Earth (along with the usual seasonal etc. variations).It continues by examining the atmosphere as a radiation filter and discussing the impact radiation has on the surface. In looking at this we get to see both atmospheric and oceanic heat dynamics. There are some comments on photosynthesis but this is really left to chapter two. After a brief examination of the chemistry of carbon, the chapter continues by analysing a range of carbon cycles - marine and terrestrial - and the impacts these have on, say, climate. If the carbon cycle is the basis of life then plate tectonics is the system that moves that life and forces it to adapt to changing conditions. The first case is volcanics and the impact they can have. Here the real focus of the book is revealed. The aim is not to repeat previous work on volcanoes but to completely recast it in the light of global warming, ocean currents and the distribution of life. Plate tectonics might shape the flows of energy over the Earth but chapter four's look at the impact of mountains shows regional-level phenomena can also have an impact. Mountain building is linked to the carbon cycle. A considerable part of the chapter is taken by the study of the Himalayas. Despite all these physical processes, life manages to get a toehold and thrive. Some of the issues it faced in very early times is the subject of chapter five. Chapter six takes a different perspective by looking at life not as a process but through time. Here one has an overview of the development of life for the last 550 million years. In fairness we start a little bit back from that with the boundary slushball Earth theory and the Ediacaran fossils. The Cambrian explosion is followed by the great mass extinctions and the impact this has had on biomass and diversity. There's a section on the development of land plants. Chapter seven looks at extremophiles - organisms living in far less conducive environments. It goes back to the slushball of the last chapter and moves forward seeing change from a geographical as well as biological perspective. There's a final look at Carbonate rocks and their impact on climate. A very brief final chapter notes the key issues raised.

This is a very unusual and well-wriiten text with several excellent features. Firstly, the production with the Open University almost guarantees excellent graphics, clear exposition and a very even coverage of the topic. There are numerous questions throughout the text with worked answers to help check. Each chapter has a preface outlining the focus and a summary with learning outcomes as a final point. These are great selling points for a text but there is also the subject matter - vital but rarely with such clear exposition. Overall a must-buy text for its subject matter and excellent production.

 

 

 

 

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