The best books on mass extinctions of life

Michael R. Rampino Author Of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century
By Michael R. Rampino

Who am I?

A visit to the American Museum of Natural History when I was seven years old hooked me on dinosaurs and geology in general. I have maintained that passion to uncover the history of the earth with fieldwork on all seven continents, cutting-edge research, and teaching undergraduates to appreciate the implications of our tenancy on the planet, and our place within the solar system, the galaxy, and the wider universe.


I wrote...

Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

By Michael R. Rampino,

Book cover of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

Cataclysms offers a cosmic context for the earth’s geologic evolution, in which periodic disasters from above in the form of comet and asteroid impacts and from below in the form of huge outpourings of lava have led to catastrophic mass extinctions of life. This “new geology” sees the earth’s position in the solar system and the galaxy as the key to understanding our planet’s geology and the history of life.

The book concludes with a controversial consideration of exotic dark matter in the galaxy as a potential triggering mechanism, exploring its role in heating the earth’s core and spurring periodic bursts of geologic activity.

The books I picked & why

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T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

By Walter Alvarez,

Book cover of T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

Why this book?

This is the classic story of the amazing discoveries that led to the hypothesis that a large comet or asteroid impact, 66 million years ago, caused a global catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs and most other species of life, as told by the discoverer of the critical evidence. Alvarez is a master storyteller—the book is written along the sensational lines of a great scientific murder mystery, solved by geologic detective work, but also relying on mind-bending serendipity. These discoveries by Alvarez and others marked the beginning of an ongoing revolution in the geological sciences and forced geologists to recognize the critical role played by rare, but devastating, catastrophic events in earth history.

T. Rex and the Crater of Doom

By Walter Alvarez,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked T. Rex and the Crater of Doom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sixty-five million years ago, a comet or asteroid larger than Mount Everest slammed into the Earth, inducing an explosion equivalent to the detonation of a hundred million hydrogen bombs. Vaporized detritus blasted through the atmosphere upon impact, falling back to Earth around the globe. Disastrous environmental consequences ensued: a giant tsunami, continent-scale wildfires, darkness, and cold, followed by sweltering greenhouse heat. When conditions returned to normal, half the plant and animal genera on Earth had perished. This horrific chain of events is now widely accepted as the solution to a great scientific mystery: what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs?…


The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions

By Paul B. Wignall,

Book cover of The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions

Why this book?

Can continental drift lead to mass extinctions of life? In this book, Wignall expounds his provoking hypothesis that gigantic volcanic eruptions, triggered by the arrangement of the world’s landmasses in a single super-continent, led to eighty million years of episodic environmental crises that devastated life again and again. He describes the latest scientific evidence for this volcano-extinction connection and takes us with him on his own exciting field experiences studying these volcanic events in remote corners of the world.

The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions

By Paul B. Wignall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Worst of Times as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two hundred sixty million years ago, life on Earth suffered wave after wave of cataclysmic extinctions, with the worst wiping out nearly every species on the planet. The Worst of Times delves into the mystery behind these extinctions and sheds light on the fateful role the primeval supercontinent, known as Pangea, might have played in causing these global catastrophes. Drawing on the latest discoveries as well as his own firsthand experiences conducting field expeditions to remote corners of the world, Paul Wignall reveals what scientists are only now beginning to understand about the most prolonged and calamitous period of environmental…


Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

By Lisa Randall,

Book cover of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Why this book?

Randall, a noted astrophysicist, explains how the extinction of the dinosaurs could be related to galactic astronomy and the distribution of dark matter in the galaxy. Her fascinating idea involves disturbances of our myriad Oort Cloud comets at the very edge of the solar system by encounters with clouds of exotic dark matter. The collisions with dark matter, the resulting comet storms and mass extinctions occur roughly every 30 million years as we cycle through the galaxy. Her provocative hypothesis provides a potential remarkable consilience of astronomy, geology, and the history of life.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

By Lisa Randall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The most thrilling, genre-busting, unlikely science book you'll ever read, from the world-renowned, multi-award-winning, superstar physicist Lisa Randal.

66 million years ago, a ten-mile-wide object from outer space hurtled into the Earth at incredible speed. The impact annihilated the dinosaurs, along with three-quarters of the other species on the planet. But what if this catastrophe was the sign of something greater: an opening vista onto the interconnectedness of the universe itself?

This is the story of the astounding forces that underpin our existence; a horizon-expanding tour of the cosmos that unifies what we know about the universe with new thinking.…


The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

By Peter Brannen,

Book cover of The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

Why this book?

Brannen examines the major mass extinctions in earth’s past and concurrent times of eruptions of massive floods of lava. He introduces us to the front-line researchers who are using the forensic tools of modern geology to uncover the connection between these titanic eruptions and the release of volcanic gases, severe greenhouse warming, ocean stagnation and eventual mass extinctions of life. This leads to the possibility that catastrophes can come from inside as well as outside the earth.

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions

By Peter Brannen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Ends of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A book about one apocalypse - much less five - could have been a daunting read, were it not for the wit, lyricism, and clarity that Peter Brannen brings to every page.' Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

Apocalypse, now?

Death by fire, ice, poison gas, suffocation, asteroid. At five moments through history life on Earth was dragged to the very edge of extinction.

Now, armed with revolutionary technology, scientists are uncovering clues about what caused these catastrophes. Deep-diving into past worlds of dragonflies the size of seagulls and fishes with guillotines for mouths, they explore how - against…


Extinctions: Living and Dying in the Margin of Error

By Michael Hannah,

Book cover of Extinctions: Living and Dying in the Margin of Error

Why this book?

The history of life’s diversity, as revealed in the fossil record has been tumultuous. Periods of explosive evolution alternated with times of major species loss. Hannah skillfully utilizes the geologic record to provide a historical context for our current global ecological emergency and the rapid demise of many key species. He makes a strong case that those who ignore the clear messages of geologic history are doomed to experience the worsening “Sixth Extinction” during the newly defined Anthropocene epoch.

Extinctions: Living and Dying in the Margin of Error

By Michael Hannah,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Extinctions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Are we now entering a mass extinction event? What can mass extinctions in Earth's history tell us about the Anthropocene? What do mass extinction events look like and how does life on Earth recover from them? The fossil record reveals periods when biodiversity exploded, and short intervals when much of life was wiped out in mass extinction events. In comparison with these ancient events, today's biotic crisis hasn't (yet) reached the level of extinction to be called a mass extinction. But we are certainly in crisis, and current parallels with ancient mass extinction events are profound and deeply worrying. Humanity's…


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