The Life and Death of Planet Earth How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World

Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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Imagine our planet far into the future, Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot" reduced to a reddish-brown husk, a mere shell of its former self. It seems like the stuff of science fiction novels, but it is the reality of science today. We are at a unique moment in our history—Earth's midlife—a point at which science has given us the capability to examine the birth of our planet as well as the forces that will bring about its eventual death. Scientists are finally beginning to understand the cycles that make Earth work and to write, for the first time, a biography of our planet. This revolution in thinking, which finds its voice in this book, is as dramatic, in its own way, as the discovery of Earth revolving around the sun.

Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee—a paleontologist and an astronomer, respectively—are helping to bring this groundbreaking work to a popular audience. Vanguards of a new field called astrobiology (the science of how planets and organisms live and die), Ward and Brownlee combine the discoveries of astronomers, Earth scientists, and those in other scientific disciplines. Astronomers are well-poised to study the end of our world, since they have studied the end of other worlds, while paleontologists can tell us about "worlds" that have already ended on our planet, such as the death of dinosaurs and other signposts in the rock and fossil record.

Ward and Brownlee present a comprehensive portrait of Earth's ultimate fate, allowing us to understand and appreciate how our planet sustains itself, and offer a glimpse at our place in the cosmic order. As they depict the process of planetary evolution, they peer deep into the future destiny of Earth, showing us that we are living near or shortly after Earth's biological peak. Eventually, the process of planetary evolution will reverse itself; life as we know it will subside until only the simplest forms remain. In time they, too, will disappear. The oceans will evaporate, the atmosphere will degrade, and as the sun slowly expands, Earth will eventually meet a fiery end.

Combining groundbreaking research with lucid, eloquent writing, this book offers fresh and realistic insight into the true nature if our world and how we should best steward our planet for the long-term benefit of our species.


Praise for The Life and Death of Planet Earth

"Riveting . . . The Life and Death of Planet Earth is a gripping tale of modern scientific investigation that underlies the insights produced when scientific disciplines cooperate."—New Scientist

"A fascinating glimpse of the possible ends of the world examined through the emerging science of astrobiology."—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"This is the first real biography of the Earth—not only a brilliant portrait of the emergence and evolution of life on this planet, but a vivid and frightening look at Earth's remote future. Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee combine storytelling power with extreme scientific care, and their narrative is as transfixing as any of H. G. Wells's fantasies, but more enthralling, for Ward and Brownlee have real power to prognosticate. This is a book that makes one shiver, but also inspires one to wonder how humanity (if we survive in the short term) will fare in the more distant future."—Oliver Sacks

"You'll take much less for granted after reading The Life and Death of Planet Earth . . . The conclusion is stunning."—Associated Press

"I have written three biographies and read many others, but who would have thought of a biography of planet Earth and its lifeforms? Ward and Brownlee have introduced the emerging science of astrobiology as a field that is important, exciting, and fun. The different scenarios for the end of life on Earth are provocative; while we cannot prevent some possibilities, the good news is that we can prevent others."—David H. Levy, discoverer of twenty-one comets, including Shoemaker-Levy 9

"This is a beautifully written, provocative book, exploring the long-term future of planet Earth in ways that have never been probed before."—David Morrison, NASA Ames Research Center

"The science of astrobiology attempts to answer some of the big questions that have long engaged the imagination of the human race. In this fascinating follow-up to Rare Earth, geologist/zoologist Ward and astronomer Brownlee, both of the University of Washington, draw an analogy between the planet's development and the human cycles of birth, growth, maturity, and death. They explain the Earth's natural aging process over eons by looking at changes in land formations, oceans, climates, plant and animal life, and the stars . . . The authors effectively communicate their knowledge and sense of wonder while making the scientific evidence clear to readers of even limited science backgrounds. Thought-provoking and philosophical questions throughout ensure that this work never reads like a textbook."—Denise Hamilton, Franklin Pierce College Library, New Hampshire, Library Journal

"The strange attraction we have to apocalyptic stories, whether told by seers or scientists, stokes this compellingly grim scenario of terra firma's fate. After a new ice age destroys human civilization in the geological near term, a reassembly of the continents, combined with a brightening sun, inexorably extinguishes plant and animal life in about 250 million years. A few billion years on, the sterilized planet vaporizes as it spirals into a red giant. How science can confidently prophesy doomsday emerges in the authors' explanation of what makes Earth a habitable cosmic oasis in the first place. Brownlee, a geologist, and Ward, an astronomer, zero in on the processes, biological and geological, that cycle the elements carbon and oxygen through the atmosphere. Elaborating on the evidence that carbon dioxide peaked about 200 million years ago and will decline toward zero, they imagine how life will look as it evolves to escape the hostilities of a radiation-blasted desert world. Creative but scientifically grounded, the authors' prognostication of the ultimate environmental disaster is morbidly enthralling."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"According to the authors—who argued in their previous book, Rare Earth, that the complex life found on earth is probably unique in the vast expanses of the universe—our planet has a pretty bleak future ahead of it, one that is a mirror image of its past. Ward and Brownlee, a geologist and an astronomer respectively, claim that human civilization has flowered during an 11,000-year warm interlude in a recurring cycle of ice ages. In their view, 'global warming,' while possibly harmful in the short term, may help postpone the return of the ice. But not too many thousand years from now, skyscraper-high glaciers will again grind across North America as far south as New York City, and civilization will be driven toward the equator to survive, if not into space. Further into the future, the authors argue, the complex give and take between carbon trapped in rocks, water and oxygen in the sea, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—the latter playing the most important role in climatic change—will eventually turn earth into a barren sibling of Mars . . . Deftly bring[s] together findings from many disparate areas of science in a book that science buffs will find hard to put down."—Publishers Weekly

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From The Life and Death of Planet Earth:

There's a difference between a human's life and the life of our planet. Ruth Ward, born in 1916, aged gracefully but never resembled her youth again. Hers was a one-way trip. Planets have a different...

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  • Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee

  • Peter Ward, along with Don Brownlee, is the author of the acclaimed and bestselling Rare Earth. Ward is a professor of geological science and zoology at the University of Washington and the author of nine other books, including Future Evolution, The Call of Distant Mammoths, and The End of Evolution, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

    Don Brownlee is a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington; currently he is leading NASA's Stardust mission.