Earth Environments

stottRating: ★★★★☆

David Huddart and Tim Stott. 2010. Earth Environments: Past, Present and Future. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978 0 471 48532 2.

Right at the very beginning of this book, there’s a crucial point: “…never has there been a greater need for an understanding of modern Earth processes…”. That was written at a time of storms and flooding and one might argue that an understanding of historical processes is as important as modern ones but the point is well made. If we consider that around the time of publication, the US National Academy of Sciences was also publishing a text that considered the world’s most pressing problems to be geographical ones, we get to see a consistent message – we need geographical and environmental education. I wonder if this point is lost in universities: if schools don’t get to teach engaging Geography, university numbers will fall. Given some departments in the UK are closing, I would suggest the point is understood.

Of course, in the context of a book review, this issue might not appear germane but there are good reasons for starting this way. Geography, and related Earth and Environmental Sciences, will only flourish if there is a solid grounding in key ideas and concepts. It follows that introductory texts should be clear but detailed and thorough in their treatment of the subject. It’s this basic idea that informs this review.

We start with a very brief introduction along the lines noted above. The first section and chapter covers, rapidly, the key ideas of earth systems – time, feedback, equilibrium  as well as noting the concept of the four spheres to highlight the key components. This is just to focus the reader and acquaint them with the way geographers and earth scientists work. From this point, the key areas of the subject matter are divided into 5 sections, starting with the atmosphere and oceans. We also get to see the structure and strategy of the text. Given that this is aimed at beginners, it’s important that a logical pattern prevails. So, the key aspect with the atmosphere is the structure and composition. The aim is to get an idea of the main layers and the main gases that comprise them. Since atmospheric phenomena are linked to these patterns it’s obviously the first step. From this, it is important to understand how energy drives the system. Although this is ultimately a chaotic system, the basic sources and transport mechanisms can be understood readily. Add moisture and the system has a way of storing and transferring the energy. This creates responses that we refer to as weather (short-term) or climate (long-term). If we are going to get a complete picture, it is essential that we look at the main heat source/sink – the oceans.  The final chapters look at changes through time in terms of climate evolution and the potential for climate change in the present. In slightly over 100 pages, the text takes a rapid tour through a complex subject. It’s obvious that considerable detail will be left out just on space restrictions alone but the key is to see what makes the final text. There’s an emphasis on understanding the local – of reading weather maps and appreciating the changes accompanying it. When the pattern becomes global scale, only the key concepts are mentioned. Given that this is aimed at the beginner, this emphasis works well. The old maxim of going from local to global and known to unknown still has a place.  Perhaps most importantly, the book allows the reader to see what the key aspects are and then provides references to extend the work. Questions help consolidate learning.

This basic learning pattern is followed by subsequent  sections. The next one looks at the processes of the lithosphere, here referred to as endogenic systems i.e. working within the Earth’s crust. The key is understanding rock names and compositions which makes the following topics of Earth’s structure and plate tectonics easier to comprehend. A final, small chapter on geotectonics – folds and faults and their landforms completes the section. The complimentary chapter is exogenic, looking at processes on the Earth’s surface. This reads very much like a conventional physical geography text with weathering as the first process, moving to slopes as a landform feature of weathering and rivers. Stopping this logical flow (one would expect coasts and glacial environments to feature afterwards)  is a section on limestone and karst scenery. Periglacial environments and aeolian systems complete the overview. This section is a major portion of the text showing now only its key importance to geographical processes but also the interest of its authors.

Section five deals with ecology and biogeography. The key ecological concepts are neatly summarised (energy flow, food webs and chains, succession) which allows for chapters on soils and world ecosystems to round out the work. A final section deals with environmental change. Rather than look at one place, the authors have taken the less usual step of looking at change in one sphere. The work starts with the lithosphere and its changes, followed by atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Two final chapters take a look at global change from snowball to greenhouse and on into the future.

There is much to like in this text. It covers a considerable volume of material highlighting the most important concepts as it goes along. It seeks to engage the reader with copious illustrations and a division into small, numerous, chapters. The effect is to draw the beginner into the work – each part deals with a limited range of topics allowing understanding to develop. Exercises and references consolidate and extend learning and a further bibliography allows the reader to explore those areas deemed most significant.  Along with its companion site,  this book gives a very thorough grounding in the basic principles of earth science. Aimed at first year undergraduates, it would be equally at home in senior school libraries. It’s rare to see such an amount of critical information is such a relatively small space. It makes for an engaging read.

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