Dorrik Stow has written an unusual book, the ‘biography’ of an ocean and one that no longer exists, at that. Geologists and non-geologists alike will enjoy this CSI-type exposition of what is no longer there based on the evidence, sometimes rich, more commonly slender, always fascinating, and found here and there in various corners of the globe.
What is there is good. Stow writes well and engages the reader by blending his own field experiences into a story that is wide ranging. Indeed, this is the sort of clear text that would form an appropriate basis for a graduate seminar course, provided the students also read the primary references. Maps are well drawn and essential to the story, showing the changing geometry of Tethys with time. Other figures and photographs are fine, but I would like to have seen more of them. The quality of the paper is inadequate for good reproduction of images; I craved a section of high-quality art paper with well-produced photographs of key sites in colour. The author is, of course, a master at compiling compelling images from the field (Stow, 2005). And, while discussing illustrations, why is the Late Devonian mass extinction ignored in figure 7?
I do have two quibbles with Vanishing Ocean, one minor and the other more major. My minor complaint is that Stow has failed to have his palaeontological facts checked, so he blunders more than once. For example, he states that the arthropod exoskeleton is composed of chiton (p. 63), and figures a Jurassic crinoid and Silurian trilobites which are ‘… typical of the Late Permian Tethys Ocean’ (p. 73). More annoyingly, Stow labours over ‘disproving’ that the end Cretaceous mass extinction was not the product of a bolide impact. I think the true fruit of extinction studies over the past 30+ years has been to show that major events commonly coincide with more than one environmental perturbation (postulated at least as long ago as Hoffman, 1989). Stow is willing to recognise ‘… a combination of environmental drivers’ (p. 185), but does not favour an impact as one of them. Discussions of mass extinctions have moved on from the ‘I'm right’ ‘No. I'm right’ state of argument, thank goodness. Rather, constructive debate of diverse and multiple lines of evidence, supported by increasingly sophisticated laboratory data and field observations, is the route to confident consensus.
But, overall, my criticisms are minor. Vanishing Ocean is readable and informative, and is ably written to interest and entertain a wide audience. I enjoyed reading it and recommend it to you.