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August 2010

Vanished Ocean – How Tethys reshaped the world

Dorrik Stow
Published by: Oxford University Press
Publication date: May 2010
ISBN: 978-0-19-921428-0 (hbk)
List price: £16.99
300 pp

DS VOTethys was perhaps the most prodigious sea the Earth has ever seen. Born amid the worst mass extinction in history, Tethys witnessed the subsequent recovery, the dinosaurs’ long rise to dominance on land, and their extinction. It saw much else besides, and its astonishing biological productivity gave us the source rocks from which about 70% of all our oil is derived.

As Pangaea cracked up around it (to form the continents we know today) Tethys survived long enough to witness much of Earth history – including the sudden catastrophic global warming 55 million years ago that is perhaps our closest analogue for what is happening today, albeit this time with our species’ enthusiastic encouragement. As the shards of the shattered supercontinent spread across the globe, Tethys became a seaway. Then, Africa and Europe finally touched at the Strait of Gibraltar; Tethys’s last westerly remnant became isolated and simply evaporated away.

Stow sets himself the task of narrating the biography of this vanished ocean whose life spanned nearly 200 million years. In pursuing his chimerical sea, Stow has sailed every ocean (except, of course, the one that remains most dear to him) and re-tells her tale through a personal autobiographical voyage of discovery. We find him first in Spain, finishing his book; on drill-ships in mid-ocean, piercing the seabed miles below. We travel to North Africa, the Middle East, China, Russia and the Americas; sometimes in comfort, more often discomfort - and narrowly escaping kidnap in Kashmir. As such, this book is a paean to the life of a working geologist travelling the globe, largely at other people’s expense, visiting places where others shall never go - and angels would fear to tread.

Along the way, Stow creates an introduction to the Earth sciences. He explains plate tectonics, the supercontinent cycle, ocean circulation, the origin of oil, and extinction events – which he attributes to multiple causes, contradicting the brouhaha surrounding the rather exceptional fact that the dinosaurs were uniquely helped on their road to oblivion by the arrival of a massive meteorite. Vanished Ocean is a wealth of nourishing knowledge revealed through the history of the Tethyan Realm. Yet, its chronological chapters, each devoted to a key event in the life of the ocean, with lengthy background explanations further expanded by personal anecdote, often lose touch with the central tale and sadly rob the book of narrative drive.

Nevertheless, Vanished Ocean is an ideal general reader for students and those who are already widely read in natural science. It should appeal strongly to legions of former science students who, having since made their way in the world as accountants and personnel managers, hanker for a refresher course, and for the interest and excitement of a life they once glimpsed but were unable to grasp.

Ted Nield

The Hockey Stick Illusion - Global warming and the corruption of science

A W Montford
Published by: Stacey International
Publication date: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-906768-35-5
List price: £10.99
482 pp 

THSIIn 1998 a graph, which was to become famous as the ‘Hockey Stick’, made its debut in the pages of the prestigious journal Nature. The graph, constructed by climate scientist Michael Mann and colleagues, purported to show that late 20th Century temperatures were unprecedented in at least 1000 years. For many this was the smoking gun of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). Before long the Hockey Stick became the icon of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and took (unacknowledged) centre-stage in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. The scientific community immediately, and virtually unanimously, accepted the Hockey Stick at face value, even though it eliminated such familiar episodes of climatic history as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age; these were explained away as regional or diachronous phenomena.

Not everybody, though, was prepared to take this new climate history on trust. Foremost among these sceptics was a Canadian mining engineer, Steve McIntyre. Over several years, in the teeth of resistance from the paleoclimatological community, he laboriously collected the raw data (mainly tree ring measurements) from which the Hockey Stick was derived. McIntyre identified numerous shortcomings with the reconstruction. The charges included cherry picking of data, use of invalid proxies and poor statistical techniques, which together produced a picture of exceptional 20th Century warming that was not present in the underlying data.

The response of the ‘Hockey Team’ (as Mann and colleagues came to be known) was to circle the wagons. McIntyre was dismissed as a crank, or a flunkey of the oil companies. Attempts were made to prevent publication of his analyses in the scientific press. When these tactics failed to silence him, the Hockey Team claimed that many independent studies confirmed their results. McIntyre, though, was able to show that these ‘independent’ studies used the same flawed data sets and techniques as the Hockey Stick and inevitably reached the same erroneous conclusions. The debate eventually reached Washington where two congressional committees concluded that Mann’s statistics could not support the conclusions he drew from them. Nonetheless the Hockey Team, with the support of the IPCC, pressed ahead with their depiction of the Hockey Stick as ‘settled science’.

Andrew Montford tells this detective story in exhilarating style. He has assembled an impressive case that the consensus view on recent climate history started as poor science and was corrupted when climate scientists became embroiled in IPCC politics. His portrayal of the palaeoclimatology community is devastating; they are revealed as amateurish, secretive, evasive and belligerent. But the most serious charge is that they have simply failed to demonstrate any scientific integrity in confronting McIntyre. The University of East Anglia emails, which appeared just as Montford was completing his book, suggest that the Hockey Team were more interested in knobbling McIntyre than in addressing his arguments.

The wider scientific community does not escape criticism. No serious effort was made to subject the Hockey Stick to independent scrutiny, despite its profound implications for the future of the planet and its inhabitants. In response to external challenge the scientific establishment’s reflex action was to side with the paleoclimatologists without bothering to check the evidence. This approach, no better than that of any other vested interest group, should dismay everyone of genuine scientific spirit.

Montford’s book ends on what is perhaps an inevitable low note, because the Hockey Team has not conceded that its temperature reconstructions are seriously flawed. However, if The Hockey Stick Illusion provokes a truly independent review of the evidence it will have served its purpose.

Joe Brannan
Den Haag