Book Review: 'Not By Fire But By Ice'
The book “Not by Fire But by Ice” is an intriguing book by Robert W. Felix. He posits that ice ages are triggered suddenly and violently by the magnetic pole reversals.
In this review, I’ll look at the points in favor of this book and the flaws in his theory of how magnetic field reversals cause a nightmarish extinction scenario best described as a SyFy channel movie plot.
Points in Favor of the Book Not By Fire But By Ice
Robert Felix fully fleshes out the variety of data sources that justify his theories. He draws on studies from geology, astronomy, archeology and other sources. He provides charts, tables, graphs and sources to explain every part of his hypothesis before reaching the end chapters where
Mr. Felix’s book says that the global warming data that says the oceans are warming is likely due to underwater volcanic activity, not warming of the atmosphere. What becomes interesting is how some recent discoveries have verified some of the features he says exist. The Washington Post wrote an article in 2014 titled “Science explains why volcanoes are erupting all over the place right now”. And around 80% of all volcanoes are in the ocean, such as the mid-Atlantic ridge that ends in the island of Iceland (which is volcanically active and become more active since 2010.) The Axial Seamount about 300 miles off the coast of Oregon was discovered erupting lava in 2015. To what degree this is a spike in volcanic activity due to the flipping of the Earth’s magnetic core or improved geological monitoring isn’t known.
This book is an excellent scientific read on prior past mass extinctions on Earth, describing how sudden sea level drops (in geographic time) caused both land and sea based life to die en masse.
He goes to great lengths to link known extinctions with drops in sea level in turn linked to magnetic pole reversals. He explains, in his main premise, how his explanation addresses every aspect of the observed data (extinctions, drops in sea level, archeological finds of sudden mass death and frozen carcasses).
The author took the time to update the book as more information on global climate, magnetic field shifts and archeology came out. The book I read was his second edition.
Strikes Against the Book Not By Fire But By Ice
Toward the end of the book, the author’s explanations cherry pick studies and data that leads to an explanation for the end of the dinosaurs that would seem extreme for a Jurassic Park sequel.
The book Not by Fire but by Ice posits that a dramatic series of events wiped out the dinosaurs. The Earth’s magnetic poles flip, triggering a rise of earthquakes and volcanic activity. This much is reasonable, since radically changing the flow of magma under the Earth’s crust would cause shifts in plate tectonic activity. Such changes could trigger any volcanoes near erupting to erupt, just as an earthquake can trigger volcanoes or volcanic activity triggers earthquakes.
A rise in undersea volcanic activity plausibly increases the temperature of the ocean around those vents, increasing the growth of clouds and driving storm fronts to shore. While water vapor is one of the most potent green house gases, readily absorbing solar energy, this would happen even as the land based volcanoes release ash and aerosol clouds that reflect sunlight back into space. The result Mr. Felix foresees is the massive worldwide production of moist plumes of air into the atmosphere that reach land and fall as rain. As the eruptions turn the Earth’s atmosphere into a reflective barrier, the world’s temperature falls.
It is said that an ice age starts when the snow from the last winter doesn’t melt before the next winter’s snow starts. Mr. Felix’s book presents a scenario where the magnetic pole reversal triggers massive volcanic eruptions on such a severity and scale that the world is enshrouded with water vapor and volcanic ash such that all this water falls from the sky and comes down as snow and ice. The sudden drop in temperatures destroys most ecosystems, and sudden snowstorms of “Day After Tomorrow” proportions suffocate most of the planet. This is his explanation for whole frozen mammoths periodically found in Siberia and dinosaur herds that were struck down in conditions that drowning doesn’t quiet explain.
There are several flaws with this argument. First and foremost is the fact that pole reversals have happened every couple hundred thousand years, whereas the massive extinction events his book posits don’t happen that often. The next flaw is the speed of the reversals and severity his theory requires are likely far faster than nature could provide.
While the Steens Mountain, Oregon lava flows suggest the core could change up to six degrees a day, most pole reversals take thousands of years. While this would lessen the strength of the protective magnetic field around the Earth, and reasonably increase volcanic activity, it won’t hit as a single massive world wide snow storm capable of freezing the dinosaurs. (This is a paraphrased scene from the book.)
Where the Author and I Diverge
I’ve explained why the disaster he describes couldn’t happen as fast as he posits. Nor has it been as severe in the past as he suggests. My third argument with his book is that humans are not going to be wiped out due to this event, because we can adapt to a change over decades.
Sustained volcanic activity over decades could cause a deep ice age that endangers humanity. In that regard, I somewhat agree with the subtitle of the book “discover what killed the dinosaurs and why it could soon kill us”. An ice age would dramatically harm human civilization, reducing agricultural production faster than agricultural infrastructure could shift and into a much narrower band than is currently suitable for temperate band crops.
Global warming in that regard is actually better for humanity and the world, since there are massive cold regions like Canada and Siberia that could be developed, while temperature region crops could shift to drought tolerant and heat tolerant varieties; genetic engineering of existing crops that has already begun to reduce irrigation needs and improve heat stress are a life-saver in the unlikely scenario of dramatic global warming. (Reality check: most global warming models overstate the warming trend line simpler models show, while newer models assume compound effects that have never been proven in the real world. In fact, real world data shows little to no warming when you factor out the heat island effect of cities.)
Given the rise of an ice age, we would see crop failures and potentially starvation. Yet there are changes we could make. We could feed another billion or more people if we stopped feeding grain to livestock. Build nuclear power plants as fast as possible, and we could power human cities and indoor greenhouses in skyscrapers in every city, while renewable power dies. The heat island effect in cities wouldn’t stop ice ages, but reliable base load power from nuclear would keep cities livable even when the glaciers are approaching. We could adapt, as a species, and even maintain industrial civilization. (I recommend reading the book “Scatter, Adapt, and Remember” by Annalee Newitz for more on this subject.)
I'm not even taking into consideration geoengineering that might be possible but hasn't been tried. And that is why a new ice age may dramatically affect human civilization but won't wipe us out.
In short, an ice age triggered by magnetic pole reversals may be fast on a geologic scale, sweeping across the globe in decades, but humans have the technology today to adapt within that time frame.
The book “Not by Fire But by Ice” is a well researched book on magnetic reversals, their relationship to documented mass extinctions and thorough description of everything a pole reversal can do to cause an Ice Age and mass extinctions. Its greatest flaw is the nightmare global snowstorm that freezes whole animals overnight that he sees as the result of the magnetic pole reversals.
As a book on prior mass extinctions, I rate it a 4 star non-fiction book. As a convoluted non-fiction work that would rival many B science fiction movies, I give it two stars.