Compelling stories of discovery and destruction

551.46, The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters, by Bruce Parker (2010)

The power of the sea, indeed!  This book, written by a prominent oceanographer, is about the history of humanity’s attempts to understand and predict ocean phenomena.  Parker does an excellent job of explaining everything from tides to wave prediction to the generation of tsunamis.  The descriptions are clear and understandable, but detailed enough to require some focused attention; it’s a vastly enlightening book, but one to be absorbed slowly rather than skimmed hurriedly.  I especially enjoyed it when I ran across terms (always carefully explained)  from fluid mechanics, which were tossed about during dinner conversations during my childhood (and still to this day, come to think of it, thanks to my dad’s abiding interest in fluids).

There’s another side to this book, though, beyond the history of science and the state of oceanographic knowledge: it is also a detailed, fascinating compendium of ocean-related disasters.  A blurb on the back of the book compares it to a kind of “Believe It or Not of aquatic destruction,” which turns out to be a pretty accurate take.  The destruction includes rogue waves that split giant container ships in half, tides that race in and overwhelm armies, and the storm surge that flooded New Orleans.  My favorite tidbit (if such language is permissible regarding tragedies) was the story of the Eddystone Light, a lighthouse in the English Channel.  Built in 1698 at a height of 80 feet, it was hit often by high waves that washed over the entire structure.  The owner, one Henry Winstanley, rebuilt it to 120 feet with a special stone-reinforced base that he thought would be impervious to the waves.  Winstanley is reported to have been “so confident of its strength that nothing would please him more than to be in his lighthouse during a great storm.  Four years later, he unfortunately got his wish” (p.109) when a massive storm swept away him, five others, and the lighthouse itself.

And then there are the tsuanamis.  Parker opens Chapter 7 thusly: “The morning of November 1, 1755, in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon was as beautiful and tranquil as one could hope for at the beginning of winter– sunny, blue sky, no wind, and unseasonably warm.  There were barely even ripples on the surface of the Tagus River…”  By the time you’ve reached Chapter 7, you already know that this sunny picture won’t end well and, in fact, it’s little more than a paragraph later that an earthquake shakes the earth and creates the three massive waves that killed thousands of people and destroyed large swaths of the city.  From Lisbon, Parker moves on to describe major tsunamis in 1854, 1883, 1946, 1952, 1960, 1964, and, in great detail, the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean (the book must have been in press during the tragic tsunami in Japan).

This litany of destruction is almost too much– and in fact it would be too much, too prurient (is that the right word? a kind of disgusting prying into tragedy?), if it weren’t for Parker’s ongoing narrative about how people struggled to understand what had happened.  This neatly intersperses the tragic scenes with surprisingly compelling stories of scientific discovery.  The end result is both hopeful (yes, death and destruction, but now we know more and can avoid the same problem in the future) and depressing (how many times must tsunamis hit before people learn the lessons of the past?).

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