Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Ecology, Science

5 Questions for Ellen Prager, author of “Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew about Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes, and More”

As news of earthquake swarms in Puerto Rico, bushfires in Australia, volcanic eruptions in New Zealand, and the calamitous impacts of climate change fills the headlines, it would seem easy to despair, to feel that the Earth is somehow out to get us. In Dangerous Earth, marine scientist and brilliant science communicator Ellen Prager cuts through the noise of fear and misunderstanding that surrounds disasters—both natural and unnatural. Drawing on the latest science, highlighting the questions and characters that push this research forward, and celebrating the hope that ongoing discoveries give for our future, Dangerous Earth is far from a gloomy end-of-days geoscience treatise. It is an exhilarating tour of some of the most awesome forces on our planet—many tragic, yet nonetheless awe-inspiring—and an illuminating journey through the undiscovered, unresolved, and in some cases unimagined mysteries that continue to inspire the world’s leading scientists: the “wish-we-knews” that ignite both our curiosity and global change. We sent Prager a few questions recently to learn more about her motivations for writing the book.

How did you wind up in your field, and what do you love about it?

As a child, I loved nature and was particularly fond of Jacque Cousteau specials on television. Then, when I discovered a passion for science in school and SCUBA diving while lifeguarding as a teen, the stage was set for my path forward. Add to this some wonderful educators who not only inspired my interest in marine and earth science, they also encouraged me along the way. A turning point came when I took a semester away from my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, to study tropical marine science at the then operating West Indies Laboratory in St. Croix. Each day we spent time in the classroom with amazing professors and then in the field to learn and study through hands-on underwater experience. I was hooked and again encouraged by a wonderful group of mentors who, to my great fortune, became my colleagues and friends. 

In Dangerous Earth, you explore the limits of our scientific knowledge of what causes disasters (both natural, like volcanic eruptions, and human-made, like climate change). What drew you to this specific topic? And why is what we don’t know so important to discuss?

I’ve written several books about what we know about the ocean, marine life, volcanoes, etc., but I’ve never written or read a book that truly focuses on what we don’t know. Yet it is the unknown that drives research, fascinates and frustrates scientists, and often inspires advances in technology. These unknowns are planetary mysteries, and scientists are the detectives trying to solve them. And scientists are passionate about “what they don’t know.” It was so interesting and fun doing the research for the book and really made me think about some of the assumptions about what we think we know and how some of our previous explanations are now not exactly right. 

One aspect of what we don’t know that is truly important is being able to distinguish the unknown from uncertain. For instance, we know sea level is rising due to climate change, but are uncertain about the rate. It’s also important to understand why some predictions such as the rates of sea-level rise are probably too slow—because we don’t fully understand processes such as ice sheet and glacier melting. No one was here observing the last time it happened on Earth. It’s also important to recognize that we don’t have to know everything to take action. Unknowns are okay, but often it is what we do know that disturbs scientists the most. 

While you were working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

Oh my gosh, so many things. Again, how much we don’t know about how glaciers and ice sheets melt. Permafrost thaw is not included in climate change models. Many of our assumptions about how earthquakes happen may not be exactly correct, and that almost all volcanologists wish they could simply see under a volcano. There were many surprises not only in the science, but also in stories from the scientists about how events happened or the role they played. As in when Mount St. Helens was becoming restless in 1980, there was only one seismometer on the mountain. The USGS wanted to send a team of geologists and volcanologists to assess and monitor the situation, but there was no money to do so. But the director at the time, Robert Tilling, pulled out a credit card and sent them anyways (funds were later reimbursed). 

Where will your research and writing take you next?

I’m currently working on several projects, one is the second book in a new fiction adventure series for middle graders that combines action, humor, and science. The first book, Escape Galapagos, was released in October of 2019 and I’ve been getting fantastic feedback from young readers, educators, and parents. The second book will be Escape . . . oops, don’t want to give away the surprise. But I can say that the location for the second book is mentioned in Dangerous Earth and climate change plays a starring role. I am also working on a proposal to create a version of Dangerous Earth for middle graders. 

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Two recent biographies that I loved were Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Bob Iger’s The Ride of a Lifetime. Jon Gertner’s The Ice at the End of the World was excellent in terms of popular science, and I greatly enjoyed Sarah Beth Durst’s The Girl Who Could Not Dream for middle-grade fiction. I’m also a big fan of adult fiction by Preston and Child, James Rollins, Matthew Reilly, and of course, Clive Cussler. 

Photo by Dave Jones

Ellen Prager is a marine scientist and author, widely recognized for her ability to make science entertaining and understandable for people of all ages. She was formerly the chief scientist at the world’s only undersea research station, Aquarius Reef Base in the Florida Keys, and assistant dean at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Currently, she is a freelance writer, consultant, and science advisor to Celebrity Cruises in the Galapagos Islands. Her many books include Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Dangerous Earth is available now! Find it on our website or from your favorite bookseller.