30 May 2018

Book Review: Surviving Mother Nature's Tests

We are all products of the challenges successfully faced by our ancestors. Whether they were natural, the topic of this book, man-made like war and willful neglect, or often a combination, we only exist because of the web of thousands upon thousands of forebears making up our family tree who came through the adversities they faced.

The heart of the book is two major chapters delving into specific examples of how climate and other natural phenomena have impacted society which comprise more than half of Surviving Mother Nature's Tests text. The focus is on the British Isles and especially England.

"Slowly Developing Events" are described as affecting wide areas and thousands of people, often for periods extending over many years and to which "people almost always adapt well."

"Rapidly-Developing Incidents" of storms and floods, earthquakes and epidemics are more localized in space and time, and more likely to hit the headlines.

It's a rough division by time. Was the multi-year localized Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century really something people adapted to? How about the global 1918-19 influenza pandemic in the same rapidly developing incident category as a local lightening strike and tornado? Nature doesn't rigidly respect these categorizations set up to aid understanding.

Wherever in the British Isles your ancestry is from you'll likely find new information about conditions in your region, county or even town. I was delighted to find my home town of Great Yarmouth included with five entries in the index.

The earlier chapters set the stage. The introduction explains the book's ambition for the family historian, that readers "gain knowledge about how such processes (natural events) significantly affected individuals and communities during the past several centuries." Although the emphasis is on climate change mention is also made of earthquakes and landslides.

There follows a chapter on "The Parameters of Climate Change"—the most technical with diagrams, graphs and even an equation covering how we know about past climate and the factors that influence it. There's good information on Ice Ages and the Milankovitch Theory and other natural phenomena that have influenced climate epochs over the millennia.

There is one problem with the chapter, the statement, referencing a study nearly 20 years old, that "high CO2 levels actually lag temperature increases, by from 400 to 1,000 years, indicating that high concentration of the gas is a consequence of temperature change not a cause." While the first part of the statement is correct based on Antarctic ice cores the conclusion is not.

Through epochs and millennia atmospheric CO2 concentrations changed in response to its natural exchange between the oceans, biosphere and atmosphere. A warm ocean can hold less CO2 so warming due to other causes means CO2 release from the oceans, with a lag, with the resulting increased greenhouse effect reinforcing the warming. Emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel carbon combustion, a third to a half of which is absorbed by the oceans, lead directly to enhanced greenhouse warming.

In a 1963 speech to the US National Academy of Sciences US President Kennedy noted that we can now “irrevocably alter our physical and biological environment on a global scale.” Sadly fifty years later we still see denial of human influence.

The book's author Wayne Shepheard, a professional geologist who serves as an online parish clerk, was previously editor for two family history society journals, and who blogs at https://discovergenealogy.blogspot.com, has done a considerable service by drawing his interests together in this book. It will open eyes and add perspective on the many ways changes in the natural environment may have affected our ancestor's lives. The thorough table of contents, references and index are hallmarks of the care with which the book was prepared.

This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.

Surviving Mother Nature’s Tests: The Effects Climate Change and Other Natural Phenomena have had on the Lives of our Ancestors
Author: W. Shepheard
Year: 2018
Publisher: Unlock the Past
182 pages
ISBN: 9781925781465
$45.21 (paperback, outside Australia)

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