Book Review: ‘The Attacking Ocean’ by Brian Fagan

Sarah FrazierOceans, Original, Reviews

'The Attacking Ocean' by Brian Fagan, was published in 2013. Image Credit: Bloomsbury.


In “The Attacking Ocean,” author Brian Fagan seeks to convince the reader of the threat of rising sea levels through an anthropological narrative of humanity’s struggle to outrun the ocean. He uses historical records to recreate tales of early villagers and modern cities struggling to rebuild or relocate after disastrous ocean encroachment. Fagan’s book covers everything from the very ancient world—such as hunter-gatherers who migrated from Asia to the Americas via land bridge—to the biggest news stories of the past year, like Hurricane Sandy.
Rather than trudge through time, Fagan chooses to present the anecdotes geographically, allowing him to engage the reader in a single topic, building up knowledge and using it, rather than just feeding the reader tidbits of information that will never be referenced again. His arrangement of the information emphasizes how the rising ocean universally presents challenges for humans living in all kinds of areas—from islands to coastal regions to peninsulas–which allows him to further emphasize the unique challenges of dealing with sea level rise in the modern era.
Fagan identifies two primary “new” challenges in the age-old struggle to sidestep the sea: First, the immobility of our extremely densely populated coastal cities, and second, the increasing rate of sea level rise at a time when the sea is more dangerous to us than ever.
In earlier eras, villages or communities that were threatened by the rising sea could (and often did) move to higher ground and find a new area to settle. Of course, the logistics of moving New York City or New Orleans to an entirely different location would be so incredibly complicated and expensive that such an option is rationally impossible. Combine that immobility with the indispensability of our coastal cities to nearly every sector of our economy, and it’s easy to realize that sea level rise is a greater threat now than ever in the past, especially with the impacts of climate change on rates of sea level rise.

Fagan makes an indisputable case for the long-lived pattern of destructive sea level rise. Working his way through the world geographically, he presents examples of the havoc that comes with a storm surge, flood, or tsunami. Fagan documents the steady loss of land to people inhabiting low-lying areas and points out the dwindling elevations of some of the world’s most populous cities. On the issue of increasing rates of sea level rise, however, Fagan rests on the assumption that the reader will examine the scientific evidence and come to the same conclusion that he has. For those readers unwilling to keep up with the latest developments in ice sheet studies, placing the burden of research on the reader takes weight from Fagan’s argument.
Although, the burden of research is not terribly high – a brief search turns up numerous reports corroborating Fagan’s claims on increasing rates of sea level rise.  For example, according to a June 2013 report in Nature, melting of polar ice caps and other ice sheets is the largest contributor to rising sea levels.
Overall, Fagan’s argument is strong: He shows, undeniably, that the ocean is dangerous to humans who live near it. In fact, the biggest weakness of “The Attacking Ocean” is the overwhelming number of anecdotes in support of this fact and the elaboration of each one. Though each piece of the story represents a different people at a different point in history, after a few chapters the stories of villages or cities trying to outrun a flood, storm surge, or tsunami begin to run together and lose their individual impact beyond the simple acknowledgement that the rising ocean is destructive.
Still, Fagan’s book is an unconventional construction of the (justifiably) oft-heard call-to-arms to aid the environment. Because he ties together historical anecdotes and recent events without relying solely on data of forecasted change, “The Attacking Ocean” is a convincing depiction of the dangers of ice sheets melting rates or ocean level rise.
Fagan, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, lives in Santa Barbara, California. He has written numerous environment and climate books, including “The Great Warming” and “The Little Ice Age.”
“The Attacking Ocean” is available from Bloomsbury.