Paleobotanists and geologists faced injury, stiff winds, polar bears, and arduous daily climbs in the summer of 2002 as they collected thousands of fossilized plants from the ancient supercontinent of Pangea’s tropics, now part of frigid Greenland. Recapping their years of study, assisted by the artistry of Marlene Hill Donnelly, Tropical Arctic recreates a collapsing ecosystem 200 million years ago in words and visuals that are detailed and beautiful.
The book’s field sites date from one of the Earth’s great extinction events, between the Triassic and Jurassic periods, when greenhouse gases from cataclysmic volcano activity created a “hot-house Earth” that extinguished many biological species. Describing these changes in accessible language for non-scholars, the book theorizes about how our current climate and biodiversity crises might play out.
Complex scientific concepts are communicated in clear terms here—sometimes with lighthearted analogies, as with likening lithostratigraphy to assembling a fancy layer cake at a baking competition. Shots of the scientists at work in the colorful tundra and textured photographs of plant fossils also enrich the text.
Donnelly’s vibrant paintings, which depict ancient landscapes, bring this research to life. She not only undertook her own field work, but modeled and experimented to understand forms and functions of plant structures that have no living counterparts for comparison. Her lush artwork is revealed at the close of each chapter, opening wondrous portals to these places in deep time. They are informed by science and interpreted as scenes of complexity and beauty.
Warning that humans have become “a geological-scale force acting on our entire Earth System,” this timely book is engrossing as it relays the dangers of exceeding the limits of plant and animal resilience and overheating an already too hot Earth.
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