Preface to the series

The study of environmental change is a major growth area of interdisciplinary science. Indeed, the intensity of current scientific activity in the field of environmental change may be viewed as the emergence of a new area of 'big science' alongside such recognized fields as nuclear physics, astronomy and biotechnology. The science of environmental change is fundamental science on a grand scale: rather different from nuclear physics but nevertheless no less important as a field of knowledge, and probably of more significance in terms of the continuing success of human societies in their occupation of the Earth's surface.

The need to establish the pattern and causes of recent climatic changes, to which human activities have contributed, is the main force behind the increasing scientific interest in environmental change. Only during the past few decades have the scale, intensity and permanence of human impacts on the environment been recognized and begun to be understood. A mere 5000 years ago, in the mid-Holocene, non-local human impacts were more or less negligible even on vegetation and soils. Today, however, pollutants have been detected in the Earth's most remote regions, and environmental processes, including those of the atmosphere and oceans, are being affected at a global scale.

Natural environmental change has, however, occurred throughout Earth's history. Large-scale natural events as abrupt as those associated with human environmental impacts are known to have occurred in the past. The future course of natural environmental change may in some cases exacerbate human-induced change; in other cases, such changes may neutralize the human effects. It is essential, therefore, to view current and future environmental changes, like global warming, in the context of the broader perspective of the past. This linking theme provides the distinctive focus of the series and is mentioned explicitly in many of the titles listed overleaf.

It is intended that each book in the series will be an authoritative, scholarly and accessible synthesis that will become known for advancing the conceptual framework of studies in environmental change. In particular we hope that each book will inform advanced undergraduates and be an inspiration to young research workers. To this end, all the invited authors are experts in their respective fields and are active at the research frontier. They are, moreover, broadly representative of the interdisciplinary and international nature of environmental change research today. Thus, the series as a whole aims to cover all the themes normally considered as key issues in environmental change even though individual books may take a particular viewpoint or approach.

John A. Matthews (Co-ordinating Editor)

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