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Extinction: Not the End of the World?

Picture © Natural History Museum

dodoGeologists are well aware of the double edged nature of mass extinctions – one species’ demise is another’s opportunity – but the title of the Natural History Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Extinction: not the end of the world?’ has raised a few eyebrows. Is the Museum about to question its own conservation message?

Fear not – though the headline is controversial, the content is as anti-extinction as an exhibition entitled ‘Extinction: It IS end of the world!’ might be. And quite right too – part of the museum’s remit is to promote conservation, and to that end, it is a great success. Footage of extinct animals, music, voiceovers from scientists mourning the lost species they study, a ‘wishing tree’ on which visitors hang their hopes for the future of the planet – none of these reflect the question mark in the title. Still, I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit disappointed the message wasn’t more challenging. After all, hippos in Trafalgar Square in 2013 would just be impractical.

Some thought-provoking issues are raised – is it right to wish some species extinct (smallpox, for example) for our own convenience? Do we only wish to preserve that which is beautiful? When resources are scarce, how do we decide what to keep and what to save? In general, though, the message is familiar. Tiger skin coats, poignant photographs of rare flowers with no remaining habitats, and invasive species – literally – in an identity parade. Multiple choice questions with only one realistically right answer – it’s wrong to use nature to our own ends without thinking of the cost. Of course it is.

Where the exhibition gets really inventive is in its design. The theme of things disappeared is everywhere – great, deliberate blank spaces between exhibits, animals stencilled in silhouette along the walls. A combination of specimens presented in living and dead poses, not necessarily corresponding to their current status. Bold, artistic installations – a fish tank containing the now homeless pupfish within a cut-out of a chainsaw; a gigantic tuna tin hanging from the ceiling.

While the ‘extinctions = bad’ paradigm is never really challenged, then, the ‘science is not artistic’ paradigm definitely is. My own highlight was the soundscape of museum scientists. While mourning Trafalgar Square’s hippos isn’t exactly the point, it is a poignant reminder of how fast things can change. We are suffering from ecological amnesia, said one. How can we realise what we’ve lost, if we don’t know what we used to have? An argument for palaeontology, as well as art.

Reviewed by Sarah Day

8 February - 8 September 2013, 10.00 - 17.50. Adults £9; Children and concessions £4.50; Family £24; Free to Members, Patrons and children under 4.


The Third Reich in Antarctica

summerhayes bokToday, there is unprecedented interest in Antarctica on account of the role the continent plays in global environmental change and the proximity of centenaries of the various “Heroic Era” expeditions. It is therefore welcome that a more recent, ambitious, but little-known German expedition is brought to the attention of a wider English-speaking audience. Lüdecke (who teaches History of Earth Science at Hamburg University) and Summerhayes (former Director of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) have written a fascinating and scholarly book for the bookshelf of everyone interested in polar history.

The book is an account of a marine and air expedition to Dronning Maud Land in East Antarctica. The expedition was prompted by political imperatives, the aim of the ruling Nazi Party being to achieve self-sufficiency for Germany in anticipation of war. Specifically, Germany was trying to expand its whaling industry, since whales were a vast resource for anything from engineering-quality oils to margarine and buying these abroad was a drain on reserves. Thus, an expedition was funded under a four-year economic development plan by Hermann Göring, and sailed under an experienced polar merchant navy captain, Alfred Ritscher, in the MS Schwabenland.

Part one of the book covers expedition origin, political background, planning and management. Part two describes journeys from Germany to Antarctica and back. Part three deals with the consequences post-1939, especially the effects of World War II, and how Germany subsequently emerged as a major contributor to Antarctic science. Part four describes scientific outcomes, with chapters on geographical mapping, geoscience, the South Atlantic floor, weather and climate, oceanography (including sea ice), and marine life (especially whales and whaling).

The expedition landed on the coast of Dronning Maud Land on 19 January 1939 in a region they named Neuchwabenland, but without establishing a land-base. They undertook a series of aerial surveys using two seaplanes, covering an area of 250,000km2 and taking 16,000 photographs. They discovered an 800km-long mountain range, in addition to an ‘oasis’ area of freshwater ice-free lakes, the now well-known Schirmacher Oasis.

However, the expedition included just one geologist/geographer and one geophysicist. Ernst Herrmann described the geology and landscape as best he could, without actually undertaking fieldwork, so most of his evaluation was based on aerial photography. He was further disappointed that no other member of the expedition was able to sample bedrock, but was delighted to find nine pebbles of metamorphic and igneous rocks in the stomachs of penguins! He also made perceptive observations about the ice sheet, and speculated on the origin of the freshwater lakes. Unfortunately, the war intervened on the expedition’s return, and several of the scientists were killed in action, while many records were destroyed in bombing raids.

The book is a mine of information. It is extremely well-referenced, and includes appendices on pre-war whaling fleets; lists of expedition personnel, costs and equipment; place-names assigned to topographic features, and a medical report. The book is well produced, with excellent illustrations, including many of historical importance. It is readable and informative book, which I strongly recommend.

Reviewed by Mike Hambrey

, Published by: Bluntisham Books & Erskine Press, 2012. ISBN 978 1 85297 103 8, 259pp. List Price £27.50.


Strong in the Rain

SIRThe Authors relate the experiences of six individuals during the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster that followed. This is not a treatise on geohazards but this thoroughly engaging text illustrates the socio-economic impacts of these tragic events at both the personal and community level.

A number of issues struck me as being both important and of more general application. The ground upon which some tsunami protection walls were founded dropped in response to the earthquake, presenting particularly difficult challenges to the designers of such structures. Other walls deflected the tsunami away from the communities they protected but towards nearby towns, compounding the destruction there; though that seems to be an issue that ought to be less difficult to accommodate in design. Ponding of the retreating tsunami behind sea walls, preventing residents from escaping, perhaps indicates that the walls were insufficient for the task at hand. This seems to illustrate the difficulties inherent in ensuring that lessons from historic events are maintained. Memories are short.

I was also struck by the roles of individuals in the governance process that dealt with the response to the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. Prime Minister Kan was seemingly directly responsible for preventing the abandonment of the complex, which might well have led to the plant’s six reactors and seven nuclear fuel pools, as the Authors put it, spiralling out of control.

However, the issue that gave me greatest pause for thought was the varying levels of impact (of the tsunami) in one community; some lost everything while others, separated by just one city block, were not affected at all. Perhaps unwittingly, the book makes a very powerful case for the application of a planning-led approach to tsunami risk-management and the location of vulnerable buildings, infrastructure and populations on higher ground well away from potential inundation.
The content of this relatively short text had a much greater impact on me than its length might suggest. I found many parts of the narrative very moving, illustrating the all-too-human impacts of the disaster. The text is also highly informative - a must-read for anyone interested in geohazards, particularly earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as those with an interest in nuclear power.

Reviewed by Mike Winter

, Published by Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012. ISBN 978-0-230-34186-9 (hbk). List price £17.99


Applications of Palaeontology

jonesWhat, if anything, is applied palaeontology? Judging by this new book, it is mostly about industrial applications of both biostratigraphy and palaeobiology, and mostly applied to petroleum geology, and mostly about microfossils.

This is the third in a series of books written by Dr Bob Jones (one the leading applied micropalaeontologists of his generation) - the others being Micropaleontology in Petroleum Exploration (1996, OUP) and Applied Palaeontology (2006, CUP). This volume is split into 10 chapters covering: work-flows in applied palaeontology; biostratigraphy and allied disciplines, and stratigraphic time-scales; palaeobiology; sequence stratigraphy; petroleum geology; mineral exploration and exploitation; coal geology and mining; engineering geology; environmental science; other applications and case studies. It is a book of two halves: the first concerned with general palaeontological applications; specific applications with case studies fill the second half (with petroleum geology taking the lion’s share of these).

A major problem occurs halfway through: many of the macrofossils groups covered in the first half are hardly mentioned again, if at all, (e.g., look up ‘trilobite’ or ‘graptolite’ in the index!) This raises the question: why were they included in the first place, other than for completeness? Without them, the book would certainly be much slimmer, but a deeper coverage of the microfossil groups would have been more relevant to the second half.

Black-and-white figures feature prominently in the volume, taken (with permission) from other publications (some obviously originally in colour), including a staggering >50% from Jones (2006). This rather gives the book the feeling of a photocopied training manual in places, which is perhaps what this book is intended to be.

It is a well-written and researched volume, and reflects the author’s broad working experience, which also presents some limitations. It should be of interest to teachers of palaeontology at all levels. It could also prove helpful to students seeking a postgraduate qualification in micropalaeontology, and to those considering career in biostratigraphy.

Bob Jones shows admirably how applications of palaeontology, and micropalaeontology in particular, have become so diversified in recent years. A broadly 50:50 divide between biostratigraphy and palaeobiology in the first half demonstrates this point, along with the various applications discussed in the second half (not all of them by any means purely stratigraphical, and not all of them by any means geological). This bodes well for the future of the subject.

Reviewed by James Powell

APPLICATIONS OF PALAEONTOLOGY - TECHNIQUES AND CASE STUDIES by ROBERT WYNN JONES, Published by Cambridge University Press, 2011 ISBN 978-1-107-00523-5 (hbk) List price: £80.00