Susan Casey examines the power and danger that lurks in the sea

I have logged five years of sea time underway (between 1998-2008); I have sailed across the Indian Ocean and Northern Pacific Ocean; I spent significant time in the Western Pacific toiling around the typhoon laden waters circa Okinawa and Guam; I know what heavy seas (up to 20ft) feel like, having traversed ships using the bulkheads to step on from time to time.  I was always preternaturally calm in heavy seas, and I never took Dramamine. However, after reading Susan Casey’s book The Wave, I am newly aware of the great power that the sea has over man, the dangers that lurk in her, and the fears that rest in the heart of any merchant mariner worth their salt.  Incredibly, Casey learns, two large oceangoing ships sink each week globally, but that never makes its way into the media.  Like me, Casey is astonished:

“When I first read about the missing ships, I was astonished.  In the high tech marine world of radar, EPIRB, GPS, and satellite surveillance, how could hundreds of enormous vessels just get swallowed up by the sea?  And furthermore, how could this be happening without much media notice?  Imagine the headlines if even a single 747 slipped off the map with all its passengers and was never heard from again?”

Casey examines extreme waves in all their forms, from rogue waves, to typhoons, to tsunamis.  She speaks with wave scientists and big wave tow surfers, reads the Casualty Ledgers going back centuries at Lloyds of London, and discovers that there is still a lot we have to learn about how the ocean behaves, and how it will behave in the future as the planet warms.  Already, storm intensity is increasing, and in some areas like the Northern Pacific, wave energy is increasing.   Tsunamis, which can be as large as thousands of feet, are much more prevalent historically than we give them credit for.  In fact, according to scientists like Bill McGuire, the impending rise in sea level is going to increase the weight load on the Earth’s crust, which will lead to more volcanic and seismic activity, which increases the likelihood of tsunamis and earthquakes.

Aboard a modern Destroyer, I felt confident out at sea with the knowledge that we would know of bad weather before we found ourselves in it. Not only were the warships I sailed on laden with communications technology and protected by constant weather alerts and voyage navigation updates, but the ships were designed to survive in rough weather.  However, I wouldn’t feel so confident in a Bulk Carrier, what we used to refer to as a Group II Merchant.  A rogue wave can sink those vessels in less than one minute, after water floods into their holds.  Our modern, global economy is built to run through merchant ships.  The recent increase in piracy near the Horn of Africa shone a spotlight on the critical cog of global trade, but the sea promises to play an even bigger role.  But it is not just mariners and global companies who should worry about the power of the great waves; coastal residents, vulnerable to tsunamis and storm surges, should also be wary.  Casey interviewed Lloyds of London’s senior executive Neil Roberts, a specialist in marine activity, and outlines their expectations:

“[Lloyds of London expects] not only snarlier oceans and elevated sea levels, but more hurricanes, windstorms, storm surges, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and droughts – all affecting more people and more property… ships had it rough out there, and sure, the losses were astonishing, but even these were dwarfed by Lloyd’s nightmare scenario: a disaster impacting the eastern seaboard of the United States, where over eight trillion dollars’ worth of coastal property, 111 million people, and half the U.S. GDP would be exposed.”

One scenario, identified by McGuire, involves the volcanic collapse of the Canary Islands, which could produce a massive tsunami that could hit the east coast of the United States in about nine hours.  The Wave is a timely examination of the power of the sea, one that I had trouble putting down at night.


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