Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps

by Peter D. Ward

(Basic Books, 256 pages, $25.95, July 2010)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Prolific author Peter Ward is known for taking risks. No matter what the topic, readers value him as both a provocateur and a trusted guide to new territory.

They follow him eagerly as he explores innovative and often controversial views of the world or the universe. Even when they don't agree with his conclusions, they emerge with a new appreciation for his questions.

At least that has been the case for the University of Washington biology and space sciences professor's previous books ranging from cover Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (with Donald Brownlee) in 2000 to last year's coverThe Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?.

The response to his latest title, The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps, may be very different. This time Ward may have allowed speculation to carry him farther than most readers will be willing to go.

The problem won't be the writing or the subject matter. Ward's narrative skills are a strong as ever. His readers accept that human activity has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and, consequently, has set the planet on a path toward a very different climate.

They understand that the greatest and least predictable effect will be the melting of the polar ice sheets and the consequent rise in sea level.

They will also accept his scientific argument that looking at the geological record can shed light on the likely consequences of a rapid rise in CO2.

So they will accept his main premise: "The greatest single scientific question--and for our society, a question of life or death--is how far and how fast the seas will rise.... It doesn't take much of a change in climate conditions to edge us from manageability into catastrophe."

The problem is likely to be the way Ward chooses to describe that catastrophe. He presents a series of speculative vignettes of life at various low-lying locations from Miami to Venice to the Netherlands to Bangladesh, as the level of atmospheric CO2 and the oceans rise. Implicit in this future history is that "the very nature of politicians and the people they serve mitigates ... proactive response to climate change."

Ward's pessimism turns what most climate scientists view as a worst-case but all-too-plausible scientific scenario into a dystopian vision -- including a humanity-threatening mass extinction by hydrogen sulfide three millennia from now.

Readers view that calamity from "old Seattle," a seacoast area that once had eight large hills, but "was now seven islands and a peninsula. To the south, where the nearby shoreline had once been, legend said that an ancient pillar known as the space needle had extended 300 feet out of the still water, with another 300 under the sea."

That might be a suitable place for the pitiable humans remaining to contemplate the errors of our supposedly enlightened civilization. And the science behind it is interesting. But many readers will question the risk that Ward took by leading them on such a contrived course to such a dismal destination.

Children's science writer and physicist Fred Bortz has reviewed several of Peter Ward's earlier books and archived those reviews online at the Science Shelf.