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Academic & Professional Books  Palaeontology  Palaeobotany

Tropical Arctic Lost Plants, Future Climates, and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland

Popular Science
By: Jennifer C McElwain(Author), Marlene Hill Donnelly(Illustrator), Ian J Glasspool(Author)
138 pages, colour photos, colour & b/w illustrations
NHBS
Over 18 years in the making, this lavishly illustrated book reveals the tropical past of Greenland, some 205 million years ago.
Tropical Arctic
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Average customer review
  • Tropical Arctic ISBN: 9780226534435 Hardback Feb 2022 In stock
    £23.99
    #253391
Price: £23.99
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About this book

While today's Greenland is largely covered in ice, in the time of the dinosaurs the area was a lushly forested, tropical zone. Tropical Arctic tracks a ten-million-year window of Earth's history when global temperatures soared and the vegetation of the world responded.

A project over eighteen years in the making, Tropical Arctic is the result of a unique collaboration between two palaeobotanists, Jennifer C. McElwain and Ian J. Glasspool, and award-winning scientific illustrator Marlene Hill Donnelly. They began with a simple question: "What was the colour of a fossilized leaf?" Tropical Arctic answers that question and more, allowing readers to experience Triassic Greenland through three reconstructed landscapes and an expertly researched catalog of extinct plants. A stunning compilation of paint and pencil art, photos, maps, and engineered fossil models, Tropical Arctic blends art and science to bring a lost world to life. Readers will also enjoy a front-row seat to the scientific adventures of life in the field, with engaging anecdotes about analyzing fossils and learning to ward off polar bear attacks.

Tropical Arctic explains our planet's story of environmental upheaval, mass extinction, and resilience. By looking at Earth's past, we see a glimpse of the future of our warming planet – and learn an important lesson for our time of climate change.

Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface

1 A Journey into the Past
2 Forests of a Lost Landscape
3 Crisis and Collapse
4 Recovery of a Tropical Arctic

Acknowledgments
Appendix: A Fossil Plant Gallery
Further Reading
Index

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A look at resurrecting Greenland's ancient flora
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 May 2022 Written for Hardback


    Greenland's name might be considered one of history's great ironies, apparently part of a cunning plan to attract Viking settlers. The locals simply called it Kalaallit Nunaat or "land of the Kalaallit", after their people. However, once upon a time, Greenland was green. Tropical Arctic is the fruit of an 18-year collaboration between two palaeobotanists and an artist to bring to life the plant fossils found in East Greenland. In three paintings, it provides a glimpse of Greenland during a 10-million-year window at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, some 200 million years ago. Much more than a coffee table book, it details the research that goes into producing scientifically accurate artwork, making it a rare treat for readers interested in botany and palaeontology.

    I will admit that when I first leafed through this book it was not quite what I was expecting. Spoiled as I have become by portfolios of palaeoart I thought this was going to be an art book first. Seeing just three full-page spreads (and, granted, plenty of accompanying sketches) I was mildly surprised. In that sense, Tropical Arctic is an object lesson in patience and the rewards that come with slowly drinking in the details.

    To give some background, 200 million years ago Greenland was positioned at a latitude of roughly 50° N (think modern-day Dublin) instead of today's 71° N and had a warm and muggy climate, not unlike today's Florida. But things were about to get a lot warmer. The Triassic-Jurassic boundary was a time of upheaval and marks one of the five great mass extinctions. The supercontinent Pangaea split up and the Atlantic ocean was born. This process was accompanied by extensive volcanism for some 600,000 years that led to the formation of a large igneous province, the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP). Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations shot up from 600 to an eye-watering 2500 parts per million, resulting in an average global temperature rise of 7°C.

    Fast forward to 2002 when palaeobotanists Jennifer C. McElwain and Ian J. Glasspool were part of a team excavating plant fossils in East Greenland. The first chapter recounts the excavation in photos and words, giving you a good feel of both the geological setting and the day-to-day reality of extracting fossils from a 70-metre cliff face under Arctic conditions. Equally interesting is the careful methodology of the excavation. Rather than just presence/absence data, the team was interested in measuring the abundance of different plant species in each of the fossil beds. How do you do that? And, given the vagaries of the fossil record, what caveats and assumptions underlie the results?

    With the fossil haul back in the lab, McElwain and Glasspool enlisted the help of Marlene Hill Donnelly, a scientific illustrator with the Field Museum in Chicago. She asked the fateful question: what colour were those leaves before they fossilized? The three chapters that follow detail the work that went into each of the three gorgeous and detailed paintings depicting a moment in time before, during, and after the mass extinction. The text thus provides a fascinating mix of palaeobotanical details and revealing insights into reconstructing extinct plants. Let me give you a few examples.

    Many Triassic species left no living descendants, one example being Czekanowskia, a plant with ribbon-like leaves. Donnelly resorted to making models out of thin sheets of various materials on which she indented vein patterns to see how their leaves drooped down from the stems. Other groups persisted, such as ferns, cycads, and ginkgos. Flowering plants had yet to evolve, but insects were already around. Microscopic studies revealed egg-laying scars on Gingkoites leaves that are ascribed to streamside dragonflies, leading Donnelly to include several dragonflies in the final piece. Leaves of the vine Lepidopteris ottonis showed water pores at their tips, so Donnelly has depicted these leaves with sap exuding from them, so-called guttation droplets resulting from high internal fluid pressure.

    One of the fossil beds captured the plant world in the throes of volcanism. Contemporary experiments have shown how exposure to increased sulfur dioxide concentrations, a gas released during volcanic eruptions, results in yellow patches (chlorosis) or dead leaf tissue (necrosis), a detail Donnelly included. Furthermore, leaves grew rounder in the experiment, a change also seen in Greenland's fossil leaves. At the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, there is a spike in so-called disaster taxa: hardy plants such as ferns and horsetails. Both feature prominently in Donnelly's second painting. Once we move into the Jurassic, certain plants, called Lazarus taxa for their seeming resurrection, return in the fossil record. Did they go locally extinct, migrate elsewhere, or were they around but temporarily not preserved as fossils? Other species decreased in abundance and the authors write that "The Jurassic ecosystems [...] were certainly not restored mirror images of the Triassic forests" (p. 86). In several places, the authors draw parallels to our current era of anthropogenic global warming while stressing we emit greenhouse gases much faster.

    A clever feature of Tropical Arctic is that each chapter features several close-ups of the final artwork to highlight some of the above-mentioned details in isolation. Once you get to the two-page spreads showing the finished works, you do so with a better appreciation of all the details, rather than being overwhelmed and overlooking them. An appendix shows photos of some of the common or notable fossil leaves found in Greenland and features an interesting introduction to the species concept used by palaeobotanists. Given that most fossils are isolated plant parts and that you cannot observe breeding behaviour, you cannot rely on the biological species concept. Palaeobotanists instead use so-called form taxa based on morphology. This can result in the rather surreal situation where different parts of the same plant are categorised as very differently named genera and species.

    As Mark Witton has also argued, careful restoration of plant life can greatly enhance the credibility of your artwork. Tropical Arctic takes this one step further. "Most dioramas and landscape reconstructions of the geological past focus on the enigmatic carnivore of the time, surrounding it with ambiguous vegetation that is difficult to pinpoint to a particular era. Our portal view of the Late Triassic forest floor turns this usual paradigm on its head: the vegetation is rendered in detail, and is of its time and place" (p. 44). For that reason alone, this is a rare treat, but the detailed look at the research behind resurrecting Greenland makes this a unique book.
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Biography

Jennifer McElwain is the 1711 Chair of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, where she is also director of Trinity College Botanic Garden. She is the author of many publications, including The Evolution of Plants. Marlene Hill Donnelly is a scientific illustrator for the Field Museum in Chicago. She has illustrated three children's books, including Big Tracks, Little Tracks. Ian Glasspool is a research scientist and palaeobotanist living in Maine. He has authored or coauthored fifty scientific articles.

Popular Science
By: Jennifer C McElwain(Author), Marlene Hill Donnelly(Illustrator), Ian J Glasspool(Author)
138 pages, colour photos, colour & b/w illustrations
NHBS
Over 18 years in the making, this lavishly illustrated book reveals the tropical past of Greenland, some 205 million years ago.
Media reviews

"Ice-covered Greenland was named misleadingly by tenth-century Norse settlers hoping to attract others. But at the time of the dinosaurs, the label would have been accurate, judging from the fossilized plants intricately reconstructed and pictured in this fascinating study by palaeobotanists Jennifer McElwain and Ian Glasspool, with scientific illustrator Marlene Donnelly. They warn that current greenhouse-gas emissions are becoming comparable in impact to the volcanic emissions that triggered the collapse of Triassic Greenland's flora."
Nature

"Tropical Arctic recreates a collapsing ecosystem 200 million years ago in words and visuals that are detailed and beautiful [...] Warning that humans have become 'a geological-scale force acting on our entire Earth System, ' this timely book is engrossing as it relays the dangers of exceeding the limits of plant and animal resilience and overheating an already too hot Earth."
Foreword

"Tropical Arctic tells the story of how a simple question about the color of leaves sparked a collaboration between science and art in an exploration of forests that flourished in Greenland over 200 million years ago. This book contains a sparkling account of fieldwork in the Arctic that combines tales of pilfering arctic foxes, energetic excavation of fossils on imposing cliffs, and an emergency medical evacuation by helicopter. Cutting-edge science gives way to scissors and glue as artists and scientists join forces to solve questions about the way plants grew in these ancient landscapes. Tropical Arctic is a wonderful synthesis of science and art with a contemporary message about the impact of rapid global warming on high latitude ecosystems."
– Paul Kenrick, Natural History Museum, London

"A compelling fusion of art and science, Tropical Arctic brings to life a warmer world at the dawn of the Jurassic when Greenland was covered with lush forests and global climate change wrought ecological disruption. Tropical Arctic reveals the creativity and dedication needed to understand our planet's ancient past. In that distant past, nature proved resilient. How human societies will fare with rapid climate change is much less certain."
– Sir Peter Crane, president, Oak Spring Garden Foundation

"Tropical Arctic tells the story of how a simple question about the color of leaves sparked a collaboration between science and art in an exploration of forests that flourished in Greenland over 200 million years ago. This book contains a sparkling account of fieldwork in the Arctic that combines tales of pilfering arctic foxes, energetic excavation of fossils on imposing cliffs, and an emergency medical evacuation by helicopter. Cutting-edge science gives way to scissors and glue as artists and scientists join forces to solve questions about the way plants grew in these ancient landscapes. Tropical Arctic is a wonderful synthesis of science and art with a contemporary message about the impact of rapid global warming on high latitude ecosystems."
– Paul Kenrick, Natural History Museum, London

"In this gracefully written book, paleobotanists Jennifer C. McElwain and Ian J. Glasspool and artist Marlene Hill Donnelly describe changes in the climate and forests of East Greenland hundreds of millions of years ago. They weave together the tools and tricks of both scientists and artists to produce a compelling narrative of discovery, interpretation, and illustration. The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs, sketches, and artistic reconstructions of the Triassic and Jurassic landscapes. The authors are particularly deft at describing all the scientific evidence that goes into such reconstructions."
– Judith Totman Parrish, University of Idaho

"A must have for anyone with an interest in paleobotany and/or prehistoric Greenland!"
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