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The Turbulent Giant

Hamburger Kunsthalle/Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource
‘Stormy Coast’; painting by Joseph Vernet, 1782
The shipping business transformed overnight from a business that involved tides and winds and gulls and sextants and signal flags and the smells of tar and sea-wet rope, into a universe of slickly oiled machines, of GPS-made, computer-calculated navigation courses, and loading cranes programmed by machine and timed to the millisecond.

While maritime trade has hugely expanded, many ocean-going vessels have now almost ceased to resemble ships at all.

Winchester mentions that in 1760 the news of King George II’s death took six weeks to reach New York. In 1865, London heard of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination twelve days after the event. Winchester traces the advances in transatlantic communication, from sailing ships, to packet ships, to ocean liners, to undersea cables, to radio, to airplanes, to our present surfeit of simultaneous information.


Winchester has always delighted in remembering modest people who have made a large contribution to history and then been forgotten. In Atlantic he recalls a number of them.

• Gil Eannes, the Portuguese navigator who, using Arab celestial navigation and a detailed navigational plan, contrived in 1434 to round the West African coast’s Cape Bojador, which, with its sandbars, perverse currents, and freak winds, had long proved literally impassable to coast-hugging sailing ships. (Winchester found a statue of Eannes on the seafront in Lagos.)

• James Rennell, a fearless British sailor who, in the eighteenth century, surveyed the deep ocean and its currents, as well as historical curiosities like the probable site of the shipwreck of Saint Paul, and was buried among the nation’s heroes in Westminster Abbey.

• Matthew Fontaine Maury of the US Navy, the great mid-nineteenth-century mapmaker and oceanographer who set a world standard for nautical maps and charts and first established the existence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which in turn encouraged Cyrus Field to lay the first transatlantic cable.

• Prince Albert I of Monaco, who established in Monaco the International Hydrographic Organization, which, since 1921, has “defined, delineated, and approved the official names of all the many oceans and seas, bays and inlets on the surface of the planet.”

I did not know, until I read Winchester’s book, that the rival to the popular Franklin stove was the “shallow, brick-lined Rumford fireplace,” invented by an “Anglo-German” Count Rumford who also

created the coffee percolator, invented a nutritious soup for feeding the poor, gave Munich its biggest beer garden and, fascinated by the complex physics of heat and cold, made the dessert that is known today as baked Alaska.

Or that John Newton, “an eighteenth-century clergyman of considerable piety—and talent” who wrote the words of “Amazing Grace,” had earlier been “a slaver of some prominence.” In the late Middle Ages Londoners called the representatives of the highly respected, Baltic-based Hanseatic League “easterlings” and, according to some authorities, the word, abbreviated to “sterling,” denoted solid reliability.


When Winchester comes to contemporary matters, he finds that the Atlantic is the victim of most of the plagues and stupidities that now beset us—reckless greed, disregard of nature, short-sighted profiteering, pollution at an unprecedented rate and volume, plastic bags, and the refusal of politicians, for short-term profit, to take steps to prevent long-term disaster. Winchester dramatically sets out what is at stake.

The 1,300 aircraft that cross the Atlantic each day are, in Winchester’s words, “dirty and fuel-hungry monsters.” A fully loaded Boeing 777 burning Jet-A kerosene and flying from London to New York leaves behind in the sky seventy tons of carbon dioxide. Older aircraft do far worse. “The ocean sees more than thirty-three million tons of plane-made carbon created in its skies every year.” Much effort is now being made to find ways of making air travel more efficient and carbon neutral, including new aircraft design and research into biologically based fuels deriving from plants and living creatures that during their growth consume large quantities of carbon dioxide.

The 70,000 ships that ply the oceans are also, Winchester writes, “dirty and fuel-hungry” and produce more carbon dioxide pollution than the entire continent of Africa. Far worse, the ocean has become a dumping ground for assorted wastes, foul and dangerous chemicals, plastics, and, until the 1970s, highly radioactive waste in huge quantities, not to mention the effluents of fish farms. Natural processes that cleanse an ocean even as large as the Atlantic cannot cope with this deadly assault.

Winchester states bluntly that the world is running out of fish because of the insatiable human appetite for seafood and the indiscriminate new technologies of industrial fishing, which have put in danger most of the fish humans prefer. One bluefin tuna can now fetch $30,000 in Tokyo’s fish market, but it is the once humble cod and the destruction of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks cod fishery that provide the starkest cautionary tale. Early explorers on the Newfoundland coast seldom failed to mention the prodigious numbers and ease of capture of this highly edible and nutritious fish, which used to be an inexpensive staple of European and American diet. In the 1950s the first large factory ships began to plunder the Grand Banks, scooping up every imaginable living creature in their path and making huge catches that were even then clearly unsustainable—810,000 tons of cod in 1968, and eight million tons in the first fifteen years of factory fishing.

The Canadian government decided to end this disastrous international free-for-all and, according to Winchester, created in the process an even greater disaster. In 1977 Canada declared a two-hundred-mile-wide Exclusive Economic Zone off its coasts from which foreign factory ships and trawlers from all over the world would be excluded. It then decided to set up a Canadian-run Atlantic fishing industry that would, among other things, benefit the hitherto impoverished province of Newfoundland. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans “came up with estimates of how much cod any new Canadian fleet might legitimately catch and got them wildly, almost incredibly, wrong,” proclaiming that 400,000 tons of cod could be taken from the Grand Banks each year. Starting in the 1970s a boom in shipbuilding produced a fishing fleet as large and destructive as the foreign one that had been asked to leave.

Then, quite suddenly, the numbers of cod, and in particular the number of cod spawning, started to decline abruptly. Too late, in 1992, the experts suggested limiting the catch to 125,000 tons, but even then political interests insisted on 235,000 tons. The 1992 fishing season showed that the fishermen could not catch a tenth of that figure; “the cod,” in Winchester’s words, “quite simply, had run out.” The government closed the fishery down.

Winchester quotes John Culliney, a marine biologist working in Hawaii, who remarked that the “planet’s last great living wilderness” was the oceans, and that perhaps they were the frontier where man had “his last chance to prove himself a rational species.” In the South Atlantic the British, since the Falklands War, can take credit for preserving fish stocks and other wildlife like the albatross and the penguin in the 850,000 square miles around South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands that now make up the largest remaining part of the British Empire. Unlike Newfoundland it is an area largely free of politicians, industries, and voters with particular interests.

The signs of the warming of oceans are by now common knowledge, along with the contention that, in the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1995, there is “a discernible human influence on the global climate.” Emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased 40 percent since 1990. The world’s oceans and seas have risen eight inches since 1870. Polar ice and in particular Greenland’s glaciers, for which the Atlantic is the main catchment area, are melting at a higher rate than usual. Some governments have already publicly demonstrated their concern but have little power to change the situation. The Maldive Islands held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009, with all its ministers wearing frogmen suits; and Nepal staged a cabinet meeting at Everest Base Camp to publicize how the melting snows and icefields of the Himalayas were ruining the country’s crops and flooding its villages.

The first effects of the abnormal melting of Arctic ice are likely to be felt by those living in or around the Atlantic. “Violent weather,” Winchester writes, “added to higher water, turns an alarming development into a serially lethal one, and violent weather, it is said, is becoming much more common.” For New York City with its nearly six hundred miles of vulnerable coastline and extensive network of tunnels and underground telecommunications and fiber-optic lines, defensive measures would be colossally expensive, and, not surprisingly, politicians are “still waiting to be convinced.” London’s future problems are even worse.

There is a continuing argument about whether global warming had anything to do with the Katrina disaster. Winchester declares, as of now somewhat implausibly, that “the [coastal] communities should never have been built,” and that their inhabitants should move inland and away from the hurricane corridors. On the brighter side is the discovery, in 1986 in the Sargasso Sea, of the earth’s probably most abundant living creature, the tiny Prochlorococcus, a blue-green alg a that is said to absorb carbon dioxide and to produce one fifth of the earth’s atmospheric oxygen. It is thereby centrally important in keeping land-based creatures alive. Any threat to its existence would be disastrous; more research about it is needed.

Atlantic is a mine of fascinating information and ideas both small and colossal. That great ocean, in Winchester’s words, “became, in a sense, the cradle of modern Western civilization—the inland sea of the civilized Western world….” In his epilogue, he reverts to a simpler mood, writing that grand ideas about the ocean “can be elusive, fugitive concepts to those who merely like to stand on an Atlantic cliff top and contemplate the awful majesty of the sea rolling and unrolling away to the horizon.”

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