Book Review: The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

First edition published 1951. 3rd edition published 2018.

Reviewed by Mike Pickles.

Since the publication in 1951 of Rachel Carson’s epic tribute to the ocean, more has been learned about the nature of the ocean and why it matters to the existence of life on Earth than had been learned in prior human history.’ So reads the opening paragraph of the introduction to the 2018 reprint of the book by Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist and Geographic Society Explorer in Residence with several books on the ocean to her name.

In the light of recent knowledge about the ocean and its plight, reading Rachel Carson’s book with its magnificent prose, makes the reader realise just how much more has been learned in the intervening 70 years. For instance, there are only three fleeting references to carbon dioxide and none at all to acidification. As Sylvia Earle says, Carson could not have known of the existence of microscopic organisms such as archaea and prochlorococcus which are so small but so effective in generating most of the oxygen available for powering life in the sea. The problems of plastic and microplastic accumulating in the oceans have more recently raised genuine alarm. However, by 1961 in her preface to the edition of the book which was released in that year, Carson had certainly realised the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, ‘….the most dangerous materials that have ever existed in all the earth’s history, the by-products of atomic fission.’ While devoting a good third of the 1961 preface to this problem, Carson goes on to explain that in the ten years since the first edition ‘….the filling in of many of the blank areas has proceeded and new discoveries have been made.’ She describes the most important of these in notes at relevant points of reference within the text.

In the first chapter, The Gray Beginnings, Carson has to update her estimate in 1951 that the birth of planet earth occurred ‘nearly 2.5 billion years ago’ with a note in 1961 to the effect that with the discovery of older rocks than those in Manitoba, it suggests that the earth itself may have been formed about 4.5 bn years ago. In her fascinating chapter on deep ocean canyons Carson describes how more recent depth findings of the Mariana Trench have recorded over 11 kms while her earlier supposition that the Atlantic Ridge is a continuous range of mountains that extends for 40,000 miles across the bottom of the Atlantic, the Arctic, the Pacific and the Indian oceans was confirmed by 1961.

There are no updated notes for the last two chapters of Book I, The Birth of an Island and The Shape of Ancient Seas. Carson starts the latter chapter with the words: ‘We live in an age of rising seas’ and goes on to say ‘Where and when the ocean will halt its present advance and begin again its slow retreat into its basin, no one can say.’ It seems strange to this reader that she could give nothing further by way of explanation even 10 years later. Obviously by 1961 worries about the effect on glaciation of a warming climate due to the greenhouse effect had not yet spread as far as North America.

Book II has some impressive descriptions of the effects of tsunamis and strong currents. One excerpt from a ship’s log in 1855 described how there were many ships trying to get westward from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, but couldn’t due to the strong current. Possibly a factor that deterred the Romans from going too far to the west. Although the Phoenicians roamed the shores of Europe, Asia and Africa and may even have launched out into the open Pacific.

The description of how the ocean currents affect the world’s climate and fish distribution are examined in Book III. Otto Pettersson’s Moon Wave theories are discussed at length. The Swedish oceanographer linked the presence or otherwise of herring shoals in the Baltic to the movements of submarine waves. He also calculated that the really catastrophic disturbances of the polar regime only came every 18 centuries. Carson acknowledges that we are also witnessing a startling alteration of climate and, she writes, it is intriguing to apply Pettersson’s ideas as a possible explanation. With a degree of foresight Carson continues, ‘It is now established beyond question that a definite change in the Arctic climate set in about 1900, that it became astonishingly marked about 1930, and that it is now spreading into sub-arctic and temperate regions. The frigid top of the world is very clearly warming up.’ One might reasonably have expected an update note here to add some more recent reasoning, but there was nothing until towards the end of the penultimate chapter, when Carson writes, ‘Unquestionably there are other agents at work in bringing about the climatic changes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.’

Apparently greatly impressed by Otto Pettersson’s theory Carson continues; ‘The great tides at the close of the Middle Ages, with their accompanying snow and ice, furious winds, and inundating floods, are more than five centuries behind us. The era of weakest tidal movements, with a climate as benign as that of the early Middle Ages, is about four centuries ahead. We have therefore begun to move strongly into a period of warmer, milder weather. There will be fluctuations, as earth and sun and moon move through space and the tidal power waxes and wanes. But the long trend is toward a warmer earth; the pendulum is swinging’.

In the final chapter, Carson gives us an interesting insight into the extracted wealth from the ocean. From iodine, the most mysterious, to bromine, magnesium, lithium and even gold have been extracted at various times from sea water. One of the world’s greatest stockpiles of minerals came from the evaporation of Searles Lake in the Mohave Desert of California where the crystals of salts formed a layer 50 to 70 feet in depth. First worked in 1870 for borax, the lake was yielding 40 percent of all the potassium chloride and sodium used in the USA in 1951 as well as a large share of all the borax and lithium salts used worldwide. However, arguably the most pernicious of all the legacies of the ancient seas is petroleum, the burning of which the author didn’t realise in 1951 would be such a huge contributor to our current and future climate problems.

The reader should perhaps return to the foreword by Sylvia Earle in order to get an overall perspective of the book. Earle was ‘mesmerized by Carson’s lyrical descriptions of the grand processes that underpin the existence of life on earth’ and ‘riveted by her vivid accounts of how knowledge of the sea has been acquired’, and ‘awed by how she wove seemingly unrelated data into patterns’. But most remarkable to Earle was what Rachel Carson did imagine. She ends with a telling quote from Carson herself;

But man, unhappily, has written one of his blackest records as a destroyer on the oceanic islands. He has seldom set foot on an island that he has not brought about disastrous changes. He has destroyed environments by cutting, clearing and burning….Upon species after species of island life, the black night of extinction has fallen.   

Earle finishes her introduction with an imaginary response that Carson might have made to a question she would have loved to ask her ‘So what do you think? Is there cause for hope? She might have replied: 

That is your island. You have brought about disastrous changes, rudely disturbing the balance, driven many unique creatures into the black night of extinction. But the cause for hope is that you know what you are doing and know that you have a choice. Imagine the world as it could be in 2051, and choose wisely.     

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.