At the Water’s Edge

In Reviews

Despite the title, the ocean is not the focus of The Attacking Ocean, Brian Fagan’s sweeping new book about sea level rise, and nor should it be. Its surface may roil with storms like Sandy, and its volume may expand — ever faster now with climate change — but ocean is always ocean, water always water. Compared with all else we know on this planet, all dwarfed by its mass, the ocean is the very definition of inertia. So what has changed so dramatically over the book’s 15,000-year span that we now need to fear sea level rise? Fagan, an anthropologist rather than an oceanographer, is very clear on this point: we have.

“While as recently as eight thousand years ago,” he writes, “only a few tens of thousands of people lived at risk from rising waters — and they could adapt by readily upping stakes and moving — today millions of us live in imminent danger from the attacking ocean.” This is the basic thesis of the book: we were nomads once, and we were few. Now we are nomads no longer, and we are many, and we have placed some of our most important cities by the sea. If this seems obvious, it’s because it is. But “we cannot understand the dilemmas of the present,” Fagan says, “without placing them in a deeper historical context.” This still isn’t the reason his book is worthwhile. To understand reality is one thing. To truly own up to it is another. What Fagan achieves through the force of repetition and examples — if a few too many anecdotes — is the latter. It is impossible to read The Attacking Ocean without being forced to grapple with how vulnerable civilization worldwide has become to sea level rise.

A professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Fagan has written more than two dozen books. He has the confidence to recognize that readers may not need to slog through every anecdote. The first chapter, where his thesis is laid out, is key — but “thereafter, you have choices,” he writes. If your interest in the historic interplay between humankind and sea levels is specific to one part of the globe — Asia, for example, or the Middle East — by all means explore geographically rather than chronologically. There is even an alternative table of contents so you can do just that. Choose your own adventure. Just be sure to end with the epilogue, Fagan asks. This is where his conclusions — all of them important, one of them surprising — await.

As could be expected when Fagan encourages such skipping and skimming, it is not his narrative that captivates so much as the book’s scope — and the litany of intriguing facts we learn along the way. There were as few as 2,000 or 3,000 people living in northern Europe just 8,000 years ago, for example. There were no cities until 5,000 years ago. The Black Sea was once a lake, Euxine. The Persian Gulf was once dry land with a single river flowing through it. The North Sea was once also dry, or at least marshy, land — a prehistoric territory that scientists call Doggerland. (We know as much as we do about Doggerland because oil exploration, partly to blame for today’s changing climate and accelerating sea level rise, led to a wealth of scientific data.)

The Onge people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — among the last hunter-gatherers on earth — survived the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 because oral tradition told them to run to high ground the moment the earthquake struck. A Great Flood like that in Genesis is also described in the Satapatha Brahmana, a Hindu creation story. The mangrove forests of Bangladesh, natural defenses against cyclones and storm surges, are being felled for shrimp farming, which is replacing rice farming, which is more difficult because of rising salinity, which is one effect of rising seas.

The most mind-bending fact in The Attacking Ocean is that since the end of the Ice Age 15,000 years ago, global sea levels have risen 122 meters — 400 feet. Compare this with the modern nightmare scenario: if all of Greenland’s ice sheet were to melt as a result of climate change, today’s seas would rise little more than 20 feet. Or with what Fagan cites as a guesstimate of the warming planet’s sea level rise by 2100: two meters, or almost seven feet. Nothing better illustrates how it is the march of civilization rather than the march of the seas that has left us in our current predicament.

Egypt’s Nile Delta is a case in point. The delta is an arc of famously fertile land covering 150 miles of Mediterranean shoreline and stretching 100 miles up the Nile. It became the breadbasket of one of the greatest early civilizations not despite sea level rise but because of it. During the Ice Age, the Mediterranean was a smaller, lower sea, and the Nile, with so much farther to go and farther to drop, a steeper, faster river. Spring floods carried nutrient-rich silt straight to the ocean depths. But around 7500 B.C., sea levels began a rapid climb that would not slow for 2,000 years. By the time they did stabilize, the Nile was neither steep nor fast, and it ponded near modern Cairo. Silt piled up. Desert became oasis. Hunters and fishermen became farmers. One of the most important agricultural areas in the world was born, and on the backs of the farmers — and of the slaves who built the pyramids — pharaonic Egypt rose.

The population of Egypt today is 80 million people, a third of whom still work in agriculture, half of whom still live in or near the delta. And now the sea level rise that helped create a nation is a mortal threat. Erosion is already eating away at the edges of the Nile Delta, shrinking some parts at a rate of up to 300 feet a year. Salinity is creeping in. A projected sea level rise of one foot by 2025 would flood 50,000 acres of prime farmland. A rise of seven feet would displace millions of people.

The history of humankind is a history of laying down roots, both real and metaphoric. Hunter-gatherers in Doggerland would simply have moved camp as the water encroached. They would have done this over and over. When Doggerland disappeared around 5500 B.C., there was still plenty of room for its refugees in what is now the United Kingdom or across the new North Sea in the present-day Netherlands. Around 4700 B.C., their Dutch descendants began farming, thereby binding themselves to specific patches of land. By 1000 B.C., their descendants’ descendants were clustering wealth and population in permanent cities — many of them beside the sea to take advantage of increasing maritime trade. Only then did society begin taking a real stand against the ocean, initially siting homes on raised mounds, known in Dutch as terpen, and eventually building some of the planet’s first dikes and seawalls.

Storms still hit the Netherlands, sometimes killing thousands of people, but rather than move, the Dutch built the seawalls higher. Populations boomed, in part because agriculture is a far better way than hunting to feed a lot of people.

The paradox of greater security in places like the Netherlands is that it can lead, in a roundabout way, to greater vulnerability. So much more is now behind the seawalls. So much more is now at stake. Protecting the modern coastline of the wealthy Netherlands is a five-mile-long, $3.6 billion storm-surge barrier called the Oosterscheldekering, designed to withstand everything but a 10,000-year flood. An inscription reads, “Here the tide is ruled, by the wind, the moon and us.” This gives Fagan occasion to underscore his book’s second obvious but crucial point about sea level rise: the rich can build defenses against it; the poor cannot. Countries like Bangladesh or Kiribati can afford neither Dutch-style seawalls nor Dutch-style hubris, and readers — presumably English-speakers from moneyed countries — are forced to own up to this guilty reality too.

For those with the resources, Fagan concludes, it is past time to start thinking about our own defenses: better weather forecasting and emergency response, floating neighborhoods, floodproof building codes, storm-surge barriers (so long as one neighborhood isn’t flooded to save another), restored wetlands (if it isn’t already too late). “We can no longer behave like ostriches with our heads in the sand,” he writes.

Earlier in The Attacking Ocean, Fagan notes another feature of the wealthier countries of the world: our policed, walled-off borders. This is the windup for his one truly surprising conclusion, which feels inevitable only once you have grappled with how comparatively entrenched human civilization has become over 15,000 years and how expensive and logistically fraught it would be to seal off Asian cities and South Pacific island nations like Kiribati from the rising sea. The terms Fagan uses are “managed retreat” and “climatic migration.” In other words, if you’re poor and by the ocean, have some bags packed, and remember Doggerland. If you’re rich, don’t build the border walls too high. The future, writes Fagan, will require “levels of international cooperation and funding to handle migration unheard of in today’s world.”

First published in OnEarth Magazine.

Photo by Andrew Stawarz


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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.