Book Review: Catastrophes!

When I visited Yellowstone two summers ago, the immense “supervolcano” percolating under the national park was a near-constant topic of conversation at the nightly campfire lectures. A 2005 BBC/Discovery drama was the reason why. Inspired by the real existence of the Yellowstone Caldera – which shaped the region through numerous eruptions over the past 17 million years – the sensational disaster yarn imagined what might happen if the huge volcano erupted today, highlighting the fact that the park’s various geysers, fumaroles, and mud pots are signs of continuing volcanic activity.

The last major eruption of the Yellowstone volcano was about 640,000 years ago. There is no indication that it is set to go off again anytime soon, but the possibility clearly captured the public’s imagination. Such an expression of natural force would be simultaneously captivating and terrifying, just as earthquakes, blizzards, tornadoes, landslides, floods, tsunamis and other phenomena are when they strike. These disasters are at the heart of Donald Prothero’s new book Catastrophes!.

As the book’s epigraph by Will Durant states, “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” Who better, then, to guide readers through the details of destructive forces of nature than a geologist? “I’ve been teaching about these events in my introductory physical geology courses for more than 25 years now,” Prothero writes in the preface, and the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that struck on December 26, 2004 provided the impetus to take the lessons to a wider audience.

Catastrophes! is divided into two unequal parts. The first eight chapters cover brief, episodic instances of massive destruction, spanning well-known events from the massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to the 2005 landslides that scarred La Conchita, California. News reports and first-hand accounts – including extensive quotations from historic sources going back to Pliny the Younger’s account of Pompeii’s destruction by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 – document the damage, with Prothero stepping in during the latter half of the chapters to explain the mechanisms of the events and debunk the pseudoscience that sometimes surrounds them. (Earthquakes do not rip open huge chasms that ooze lava, for one thing.) Each part is given its own sub-section, and a list of references appends each chapter, giving the book a semi-technical feel between that of a textbook and a typical trade nonfiction book.

At the outset of chapter 9, though, the book switches perspectives. The early part of the book treats catastrophes that occur in the space of hours, days, or weeks, but the last four chapters pull back to a long-term, geological view that covers ice ages, human-caused climate change, mass extinctions, and threats we are creating to our own survival. (This part acts as an extension of Prothero’s last book Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs, which I also reviewed.) Prothero relaxes into a more personal writing style here, coloring the stories with personal opinions and anecdotes that are relatively thinner elsewhere in the book.

I was particularly interested in Prothero’s chapter on mass extinctions. The idea that the end-Cretaceous mass extinction – or any other of the “Big Five” mass extinctions – was caused by an asteroid strike was part of a “the sky is falling!” fad that has not stood up to scrutiny, Prothero asserts. Yet, while it is true that comets, asteroids, and meteorites have been blamed for just about all the great die-offs in earth’s history at one time or another since mass extinctions were recognized as a reality by paleontologists, rigorous academic debate continues to surround the role of a confirmed asteroid impact in the disappearance of non-avian dinosaurs and other creatures 65.5 million years ago.

A little more than a year ago, a group of 41 paleontologists and geologists published a review in Science advocating that the asteroid strike was the central factor in the end-Cretaceous extinction. This garnered several responses in the pages of the same journal a few months later, including a letter from 29 vertebrate paleontologists and colleagues arguing that other factors – such as the massive eruptions of the Deccan Traps, climate change, and regression of the seas – may have also played important roles. (The authors of the original paper replied to all these criticisms in their own response. This exchange is not mentioned in Catastrophes!) There is no clear consensus as yet. Much of what we know comes from North America, making it difficult to track the global pattern of extinction on a fine scale, and sociological aspects of science play into this debate as much as the hard evidence. Although Prothero is right to point out that many impact-based extinction scenarios turned out to be duds, the dismissal of an impact as the cause of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction is premature.

To return the book to a more parochial viewpoint relevant to the daily life of his audience for the last chapter, Prothero considers the risks earthquakes, landslides, and other natural disasters present to our lives. Readers of the book do not have much to worry about – though frightening and destructive, events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions claim few lives in the United States – but people in impoverished parts of the world are at greater risk due to location, inability to afford stable shelter, and a lack of political support in the form of evacuation plans and disaster relief. Even then, however, the constant pressures of disease, famine, and drought are still more deadly than even the most destructive natural events that Prothero describes in the book, and a short coda warns that the continuing population growth of our species will only add to our troubles. The conclusion may seem contradictory in a book about natural disasters, but we have relatively little to fear from landslides and tornadoes if we plan ahead and act wisely. Subtler killers that run rampant in poverty-stricken parts of the world are far more deadly.

Though the prose in the early chapters can be a little dry at times, Catastrophes! is an informative book that explains the science behind natural disasters while simultaneously dispelling associated myths about them. During a time when global climate change is becoming an increasing concern and details of global catastrophes arrive on our computer screens as they unfold elsewhere, Prothero’s book is a useful guide to the mechanisms and effects of some of nature’s most frightening events.

Full disclosure: Prothero provided a blurb for the cover of my first book, Written in Stone.

Top Image: Water heated by geologic activity in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin flows into a nearby river. Photo by author.

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