Thursday, May 05, 2011

Atlas of Oceans: An Ecological Survey of Underwater Life
by John Farndon
Yale University Press

We live on land, but our civilization and even our lives would be impossible without healthy oceans.  Because we live on land we at least seem to know more about it, and discussions about climate change tend to concentrate on land-based effects and causes.  The main topic involving the seas is their level and the effect on coasts.  But some of the most profound and least understood climate threats involve the depths of the oceans.

As the title says, this book is an atlas, and in layout may remind you of other print atlases and even geography books.  But it does emphasize ecological issues, so while it has information that's fascinating and useful beyond those issues, it is directly relevant to today's most pressing concerns.  But it doesn't just name "overfishing" as a problem--it explains what industrial fishing is.

The writing is crisp and clear.  There are lots of photos (with good color especially for the remarkably colorful creatures of the deep) as well as maps and charts.  I find the layout pleasing to my eye and easy to navigate.  The range of subjects seems comprehensive and yet not overwhelming.  You can learn about endangered species but also the different kinds of life in different oceans, and the nature of different kinds of seashores.  The book is a nice size--big enough to do justice to the pictures and allow for this layout, but not so thick that you can't carry it around.  It's impressively published as well as well-written and thought out.  It's excellent and important.

I do have caveats.  I found one big error: A section midway through the book titled "Dead Zones" is actually about "the dark zone"--two quite different things. The dark zone is the very deepest ocean where amazing discoveries of unknown lifeforms have been recently made.  There is a correctly titled section earlier in the book about Dead Zones--huge regions without enough oxygen to support ocean life, due to poisoning by fossil fuels and fertilizer runoff.

Some people (like me) may get Dead Zones confused with other huge areas of the ocean choked with garbage--miles and miles of swirling plastics and other refuse.  These are called the Garbage Patches, but the section about them in this atlas is titled Plastic Soup. There isn't even an index entry for "garbage."  This lack of functionality, at least in this one instance, is always a problem for a reference book, but of course a much bigger problem when people are used to the ease of searching on the Internet.

These problems, as well as some (for me) unenlightening maps and charts, are drawbacks for a reference work.  But reference works often suffer from less than reader-friendly texts.  That's not a problem with this book--in fact, it's a strength.  You can read this book as a single story, a history of the planet from an oceanic point of view, as well as an explanation of current threats and exploration of the latest discoveries.

 The text has what so few reference books have: a voice.  The visuals illustrate this text as well as piquing a browser's interest and satisfying a roving eye. It's absorbing and satisfying reading.  I would  recommend it for young people in particular, especially because they may learn about what good writing is while they learn about the great waters, three-quarters of the planet, three-quarters of ourselves.

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