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The Eco-Worrier Reviews "The Sea Around Us"

"The Sea Around Us." Rachel Carson.

Oxford University Press, New York. 1951.

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.” (The Sea Around Us)

As one of the pioneers of the environmental movement Rachel Carson is a hugely important figure. She is best known for “Silent Spring," published in 1962, just two years before her death at the age of 57. After the book’s shattering exposure of the environmental devastation caused to food chains by DDT becoming increasingly toxic at each stage, a global ban on the chemical was instigated. Carson was posthumously awarded The Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

Much less well-known is her career as an aquatic biologist with the US Bureau of Fisheries where she wrote a series of papers on marine matters, leading to her career as a professional writer. Three highly regarded books on the seas and oceans followed. Her first major publication was "The Sea Around Us." Following its success and with the confidence of a National Book Award in 1951, the next year saw "Under the Sea Wind" brought to the mass-market. This had originally been written in 1941 but wartime publication had been severely restricted. That book traces the life cycles and migrations from the perspective of individual sea-birds and sea-creatures as varied as a Sanderling, a Mackerel and an Eel.

Last in this marine trilogy came "The Edge of the Sea" in 1955. As the title suggests, it is about the Atlantic coastline of the US, tracing the succession of ecosystems from the rocky northern coasts beyond Cape Cod, down through the vast beaches of the Carolinas to end on the coral coast of Florida. The flora and fauna of each of those distinctive coastal regions is examined in detail.

"The Sea Around Us" investigates two billion years of geological history as well as the more recent natural history of the oceans. There was much to be discovered about the marine environment, which covered almost three quarters of the surface of the planet 70 years ago - and there is still much to be learned today. The book translates the seasonal cycles with which we are so familiar on land into the alien marine world at different latitudes as the year turns through its annual cycle.

It is startling to think that at the same time as Carson was writing this book a young officer named Jacques Cousteau had just left the French navy and leased a boat named Calypso which he was refitting as a floating laboratory for undersea exploration. During his military service Cousteau had already made great progress in developing breathing equipment from the primitive devices first developed in France in the 1920s. Today he is recognised as the father of scuba diving.

However, the most striking advance in scientific understanding revealed by reading this book concerns global warming. Most environmentalists today tend to assume that the connection between man-made emissions and warming global temperatures have been widely known since the Victorian period and that it is only the disinformation of the fossil-fuel industries which has prevented effective action being taken. The reality is that scientific understanding of the subject developed very slowly and that in the 1890s the argument made by scientists such as Svante Arrhenius and Thomas Chamberlin for the ‘greenhouse effect’ was very much a minority view. In 1938 Guy Callendar was still trying to attract attention to the CO2/global warming connection, but most scientific opinion supported theories citing the influence of sunspots.

Carson was herself very conscious that the seas, especially in the North Polar regions, were warming, but she was attracted to the theories of Swedish oceanographer Otto Pettersson who linked the rising temperatures to deep ocean currents. Scientists in 1950 were already aware that temperatures, especially in the far north, were rising, but they assumed that they were cyclical and did not appear to be alarmed. Without any assistance from sceptics or deniers most of them believe that human activities had nothing to do with rising temperatures. The connection was only confirmed with the help of early 1970s computer modelling and then brought to public attention in the early 1980s by scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen. Within a remarkably short period Hansen was addressing the US Senate and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was being formed in 1988 and it was only then that the deniers sprang into action.

The fact that just four decades later the sale of petrol and diesel cars will be banned in the UK and that most countries are aiming for ‘climate-neutral’ economies by 2050 is certainly evidence that the climate emergency is being taken seriously. However, there is still scope for all manner of cheating and ‘greenwashing’ by the world’s governments and big corporations with dubious ploys such as ‘offsetting’ carbon emissions. They will need to be closely watched. That is why climatologist Michael Mann’s latest book ‘The New Climate War’ is next on The Eco-Worrier’s reading list.

While some of the science of "The Sea Around Us’ is dated, much of it is just as impressive as Carson’s writing, which has the profound ability to arouse a sense of wonder at the (marine) world around us. She builds on ‘The Butterfly Effect,’ the popular saying that the air stirred on side of the world by a single insect’s wings can result in a hurricane thousands of miles away - but she looks at it from a marine perspective. Constant winds turn a ripple on the surface into a ‘swell’ moving at around 15mph, gradually building the waves into giant rollers on the far side of the ocean. When such effects clash randomly with the tides and ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream and the Humboldt Current it is not surprising that humans have always been wary of the unpredictability of the open sea.

The sheer scale of the movements of seawater is mind-boggling. For example, the Equatorial Current transfers 6 million cubic metres per second from the South Atlantic to the North Atlantic. Perhaps the most fascinating transfer of water occurs at the Straits of Gibraltar. Because the Mediterranean is a shallow sea, in a hot climate immense quantities are evaporated leaving salty water which sinks and flows out into the Atlantic. The result is that the Med is lower than the ocean. There is therefore a compensatory and equally powerful constant flow of less-dense, less-salty water in the opposite direction through the same straits nearer to the surface. I cannot think of a better way to finish this review of Carson’s fascinating book on the wonders of the seas and oceans than to use her quote from the log of a sailing ship trying to negotiate the Gibraltar straits in 1855:

‘Weather fine; made one and a quarter points leeway. At noon, stood in to Almera Bay and anchored off the village of Roguetas. Found a great number of vessels waiting for a chance to get to the westward, and learned from them that at least a thousand (!) sail are weather-bound between this and Gibraltar. Some of them have been so for six weeks, and have got as far as Malaga, only to be swept back by the current. Indeed, no vessel has been able to get out into the Atlantic for three months past’.

"Beyond all things is the ocean" - Seneca

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