In his fine new book Vanished Ocean, geologist Dorrik Stow uses the biography of one of our planet’s vanished oceans to teach the reader a wide range of veeery long-term perspectives on geological history. The ocean that geologists call the Tethys came into being when the Pangaea supercontinent coalesced in the Late Permian, 260 million years ago. Its last vestige finally disappeared when one of the Mediterranean sea’s forerunners dried up 6.5 million years ago.
Along the way, Stow explains plate tectonics, the birth and death of seas, deep-sea sedimentation (his research speciality) and a lot of palaeontology and palaeoecology. Stow describes his travels to relevant rock outcroppings around the world and takes some time at the start of each chapter to wax eloquent over the current scenery in each area, not forgetting to offer wine suggestions.
The main point of controversy that I could detect is that Stow does not believe that an impacting space rock caused the K-T mass extinction, nor that this extinction was a brief catastrophic event. In fact, he thinks that the public has been “thoroughly hoodwinked” on this issue (p. 180). Stow looks more to long-term ecological change and the Deccan supervolcanoes. To me his arguments appear sound, but I know that they don’t convince most of his colleagues, so I’ll just go with their consensus and continue to believe that an impact killed off the dinosaurs.
A smaller point of contention is that Stow repeatedly compares the last land-lubbing ancestor of whales and dolphins to a hyaena. This may be true in the outward shape of the beast in question, but taxonomically speaking it was an ungulate, not a member of the Carnivora. This would have been worth mentioning.
An extensive glossary and an alphabetical index add to the book’s value.
My main complaint with the book has to do with copy editing: Dorrik Stow has a tendency to purple prose and sometimes doesn’t appear to know quite what certain big words mean. He would have come across as a more trustworthy narrator if someone had helped him weed out expressions like “oceans are bathed”, “island archipelago”, “those halcyon seas”, “rich pastiche of history”, “fought for prowess in the sky”, “we can measure and even quantify”, and “We have dwelt too long in the opulence and security of her balmy central gyres and so seen pernicious death descend”.
Then there’s the whole poetry thing. I’m not a fan of Pablo Neruda, but the man is a legendary poet and a Nobel laureate, and so it’s no surprise that his collection Stones of the Sky has supplied a number of chapter mottoes. But there’s another poet who gets to introduce almost as many chapters – Dorrik Stow himself. His bits aren’t bad, but quoting your own poetry about palaeontology, and putting it alongside excerpts from Pablo Neruda, does look a bit self-congratulatory.
All in all though, I found Vanished Ocean to be a lively, engaging and solidly informative read, which even manages to make deep-ocean sedimentology look pretty exciting. And that is no small achievement.
Dorrik Stow, Vanished Ocean. How Tethys Reshaped the World. Oxford University Press 2010. 300 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-921428-0.