Thursday, June 13, 2013

Brian Fagan's "The Attacking Ocean"

Brian Fagan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an internationally respected authority on the impact of climate change on human societies through history. His climatic books for general audiences include Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El NiƱo and the Fate of Civilizations, The Little Ice Age, The Long Summer, and The Great Warming. He was editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology and lectures on a broad array of subjects to audiences around the world.

Fagan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels, and reported the following:
To my surprise, I found that Page 99 got right to the very core of the diffuse subject of rising sea levels, currently the object of much media hysteria. The Attacking Ocean is a history of the impact of rising sea levels on human societies over the past 10,000 years. It’s my fifth book that deals in one way or another with ancient, and to some extent, modern climate change in relation to humanity. It began about three years ago when I heard a lecture about the potential impact of an encroaching ocean on the low-lying, heavily populated coastline of Bangladesh. Tens of millions of people live only a few feet above sea level in a country that’s basically a giant river delta with a rapidly growing population. They are at risk not only from the encroaching Bay of Bengal, but also from saltwater contamination of groundwater. Then there are tropical cyclones that barrel ashore with savage winds. Huge sea surges inundate villages and rice paddies, and, in the past, killed tens of thousands of people. Today, they kill far fewer victims, thanks to well-rehearsed evacuation plans, but the threat is still there. One estimate has it that at least ten million people will have to be resettled elsewhere within a half century—and there’s nowhere in Bangladesh for them to go.

The Attacking Ocean tells a complex history that begins with Doggerland, a now-submerged landscape that once formed the North Sea. Here, hunters moved effortlessly to higher ground in the face of changing shorelines. As population rose, people took up farming, then towns and cities came into being, and the situation became far more complex as human vulnerability, especially to sea surges, increased exponentially. We explore the violent surges that hit the medieval Low Countries, describe the long history of sea defenses in the Netherlands. We visit Asian villages confronted by a heightened danger from tsunamis in a world of rising oceans, consider the plight of Shanghai, a megacity on or below sea level, with an exploding population. Then there are Pacific islands, the Maldives, and Inuit villages on barrier islands in the Arctic, all in danger of extinction. I argue that the greatest immediate danger is from sea surges brought by violent tempests. Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy were early warnings, a foretaste of a warming world where extreme weather events will be much more commonplace and the potential damage in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Page 99 is the last page of Chapter 6, which describes some of the dramatic changes to places like Homeric Troy, the Piraeus (the harbor of classical Athens), and the ports of Rome. From ancient times, we move onto the plight of modern cities like Venice, where a magnificent historic city is subsiding inexorably into the Adriatic Sea. Page 99 considers the options. Does one wall off the city from its ever-more frequent inundations at high tide? Or does one jack up ancient buildings to higher levels? All the options are dauntingly expensive. “Venice is a sobering wake-up call, a prototype for what may happen to many low-lying cities with much larger populations in the not-too-distant future,” I write. Page 99 introduces a major theme of the book—that of our increasing, and very frightening, vulnerability to an attacking ocean. Many people assume the attack is one for future generations to worry about, but the threat is much more immediate. It is sea surges and their attendant destruction that offer immediate, and potentially devastating challenges to an already extremely vulnerable humanity. I ended up feeling very frightened by the future, tempered with a confidence that we will prevail—but it will take all our ingenuity and abilities to plan and innovate to do so.
Learn more about the author and his work at Brian Fagan's website.

The Page 99 Test: Fagan's The Great Warming.

--Marshal Zeringue