Skip to main content

A World without Ice – Henry Pollack ****

This book might well have passed me by if it had not been shortlisted for the 2010 Royal Society science book prize. I hope the book receives the exposure it deserves – Henry Pollack gets across well the dangers we face if we do not prevent further global warming and melting of the world’s ice.
We see how, if we are not careful, rising sea levels, caused by the melting of ice sheets, will lead to the flooding of low-lying island nations, and how parts of South America will be without water for drinking and agriculture after the snow and ice on top of the Andes have disappeared. We see how the melting of permafrost will release the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere, exacerbating the warming of the planet, and how underwater animal species that rely on sea ice for their development will struggle to survive once the ice is gone, producing knock on effects all the way up food chains.
The book isn’t limited to these discussions, however, and considerable space is also given earlier on to a variety of surrounding topics. In these sections we look at, for instance, what the world was like during past ice ages and how ice has shaped earth’s landscapes historically, and the strength of the consensus among scientists about the extent of future global warming and what have been the main causes of warming in the past.
The author is good at making simple analogies to get across important points. When looking at the causes of global warming in the earlier sections, for example, Pollack discusses the IPCC’s position in 2007 that there is a 90 percent chance that humans are responsible for most of the warming in the second half of last century. Some have seized on the remaining 10 percent to argue that there is uncertainty around the role humans have played. But, as Pollack says, if you were to go into a casino and be told that, for any game you choose, you would be given a 9 out of 10 chance of success, you would feel very confident indeed about going home with a lot of money. There is very little doubt about the extent to which humans have driven climate change, and are accelerating the transition to a world without ice.
Nothing gets in the way of the book’s message – the science is easy to understand and the writing is very approachable. It’s difficult to find anything significantly wrong with the book. I wondered whether it could have spent a little more time on what action we as governments and individuals need to take, given the position we are in – this is dealt with fairly briefly. It could also have been useful to hear directly from individuals in the communities most threatened by rising sea levels and the loss of ice about the specific difficulties in their daily lives they will likely be forced to contend with, and are already dealing with. These human stories would have made the consequences of ice loss seem a little less abstract.
These are small drawbacks, however. All in all, this is a well written book that should alert us to the importance of tackling global warming, and stopping ice loss, urgently.
Also in Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley


Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…