Some 250 million years ago, the great supercontinent of Pangea formed, on the eve of a great extinction that bookmarked both the close of the Permian period and the Paleozoic era; the future belonged the first dinosaurs. To the east of Pangea was a vast sea known as Tethys. When the forces of plate tectonics broke Pangea up into massive component land masses, Tethys formed a great equatorial sea between the northern Laurasia and the southern Gondwanaland, expanding east-west ocean circulation that saw the birth of modern marine life. By five million years ago, Tethys was no more; all that remains of her today is the Mediterranean Sea. In Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World, author Dorrik Stow – a renowned geologist and oceanographer who specializes in deep ocean research – not only traces the long lifecycle of Tethys but utilizes this structure as a framework to probe plate tectonics, evolution, extinction events, oceanic conveyor belts, geology, climate change, of origin of fossil fuels, and much, much more!
Vanished Ocean is a brilliant work and clearly a labor of love for Stow, whose elegant writing style turns complex scientific concepts into an immensely readable narrative that is comprehensible for the most part to the general reader with at least some familiarity with earth science principles. This is enhanced by a number of tables, illustrations and maps, as well as an ample “glossary of terms,” neatly accented by appropriate snippets of Pablo Neruda verse at the face of each chapter. It is clear from his passion that for Stow the processes of the earth and the evolution of both the organic and inorganic that it hosts represent a kind of poetry in motion, and his enthusiasm is eminently contagious for the reader, even in the occasional moments when the concepts are so complex that a paragraph may need to be re-read more than once. Still, if you know something about plate tectonics and evolution, there is nothing here that is not accessible. It is a real treat to listen to Stow relate the story – along with anecdotes of his life and travels that clearly reveal that even after a lifetime of research he remains as delightfully full of wonder as an eight year old child as the processes of the planet – much of these echoes of a far distant era — are exposed.
There is controversy here, as well. Stow does not buy into the accepted catastrophic theory of dinosaur extinction, which a scientific consensus today attributes to a massive asteroid collision 65 million years ago at the Chicxulub Crater beneath Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in what is geologically referred to as the “KT Boundary Event” that marks the end of both the Cretaceous Period and the Mesozoic Era. Stow argues with great conviction that given the frequency of mass extinction events over the long geologic history of the earth, there are plenty of ingredients in place – such as climate change and the continental drift of plate tectonics – to account for such an extinction without introducing an extra-planetary event. I lack the expertise to parse Stow’s dissent. On the other hand, Stow is a distinguished scientist – not some talking head with a political axe to grind – and his opposing views are worthy of respect even if these defy the current accepted theory.
I will not pretend to have absorbed all of the complicated concepts of Vanished Ocean, but it was a most enjoyable read and I may one day even read it again in order to better comprehend the immense range of the material that Stow has packed into what is after all, a rather small volume given the enormity of its content. I would highly recommend this book both to scientists and non-scientists alike.