Reading Diary: Deep Water: As Polar Ice Melts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise by Daniel Grossman

I feel a little weird reviewing this book.

It's a TED book, you see.

What's a TED book, you ask. I'll let TED tell you:

Shorter than a novel, but longer than an magazine article -- a TED Book is a great way to feed your craving for ideas anytime.

TED Books are short original electronic books produced every two weeks by TED Conferences. Like the best TEDTalks, they're personal and provocative, and designed to spread great ideas. TED Books are typically under 20,000 words — long enough to unleash a powerful narrative, but short enough to be read in a single sitting.

TED talks, in other words, but in longer, more in-depth treatment that's possible in a short book rather than a short talk.

On the surface, actually a really great idea. In practice, it can be a bit problematic, just like TED talks. Carl Zimmer and Evgeny Morozov have gone into fairly extensive detail about the dark side of TED talks and TED books. Basically, the format encourages a kind of hip superficiality and fame-mongering. Ideas want to be famous, to paraphrase the famous saying that information wants to be free. Well, just like information also wants to be expensive, ideas also want to be deep and well thought-out. And, you know, even perhaps a little on the valid side too.

Which brings me to this particular TED book: Daniel Grossman's Deep Water: As Polar Ice Melts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise (TED site, trailer, home page).

As global warming continues, the massive ice caps at Earth’s poles are melting at an increasingly alarming rate. Water once safely anchored in glacial ice is surging into the sea. The flow could become a deluge, and millions of people living near coastlines are in danger. Inundation could impact every nation on earth. But scientists don’t yet know how fast this polar ice will melt, or how high our seas could rise. In an effort to find out, a team of renowned and quirky geologists takes a 4,000-mile road trip across Western Australia. They collect fossils and rocks from ancient shorelines and accumulate new evidence that ancient sea levels were frighteningly high during epochs when average global temperatures were barely higher than today. In Deep Water veteran environmental journalist, radio producer and documentary filmmaker Daniel Grossman explores the new and fascinating science — and scientists — of sea-level rise. His investigation turns up both startling and worrisome evidence that humans are upsetting a delicate natural equilibrium. If knocked off balance, it could hastily melt the planet’s ice and send sea levels soaring.

Contrary to any TED-inspired queasiness I might have had diving into the book, it actually does a pretty good job of what it sets out to do: make the case that what we're doing to our climate is having disastrous effects on sea levels. He explains the details fairly clearly, wrapping it up in an engaging package of fairly typical science writing. In keeping with the pop science writer play book, Grossman does a good job of finding some key scientists and following them around on a bunch of fun adventures, getting them to tell the climate change and sea level story in a very human and accessible way. The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, as it were.

If the main message sometimes seems a bit obscured sometimes by cool fun stories and colourful characters, well, that's something I guess I can live with and it is certainly part of the TED ethos of embedding ideas into very personal stories. The real problem I have with the book is that as a book rather than a TED talk it very definitely needs a solid bibliography and accurate citations if it's going to establish and maintain credibility with anyone. I'm not saying I don't believe the claims that Grossman makes about climate change and rising sea levels, because I do, but I still think is important to back up such claims with direct links to the science itself.

At very least, if climate skeptics are reading this they will be more likely to be convinced if they can track back to the research. Or maybe not, which is the sad case with climate skeptics. But I still would like to see actual citations in the text rather than the typical "research says" or "recently it was shown."

Would I recommend this book to people interested in climate science and the state of our oceans? If you already know a lot about these topics, not really. It you would like to get up to speed in a hurray, then actually this book is a pretty decent way to do this.

As for TED books in general, while it might be wise to avoid the more conceptual and pop-cultural examinations of serious topics, at very least this example of the TED beast is quite respectable. Perhaps closer to what TED was initially conceived of rather than what it has evolved into. I definitely wouldn't mind seeing more TED books in this vein.

Usually, I would talk about what kinds of libraries should consider purchasing the item under review but since this book is only available as a Kindle Single, through iBooks or via the TED Books app, none of which are really particularly accessible to libraries and their patrons, I'll pass on that, perhaps preferring to break up with ebooks in my librarian capacity.

Grossman, Daniel. Deep Water: As Polar Ice Melts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise. New York: TED Conferences, 2012. 53pp.

(PDF version of book provided by publisher.)

Update 2012.08.08: Added links to the book trailer and website.


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Great review. I will definitely want to read this TED book to be up to date on the state of melting glaciers and help decide whether to buy that ocean front cottage at the Jersey Shore or to buy inland.

By Richard Bansen (not verified) on 08 Aug 2012 #permalink