The sea, the sea.

I begin this edition with a welcome ter readers, coupled with the following admonition.:(

Do not think, dear reader, that in this edition of SU, you will get an orderly discourse about the sea, a discourse clearly delineated into parts, politics, policy and literary section. Fer, as the sea is a mysterious inter-action of parts not easily fathomed, can a serf hope ter penetrate where the scholars do not?  And so herewith:

Fateful attraction.

 From Herman Melville, ‘Moby Dick,’ again, Chapter I.

 ‘Circumnavigate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon …What do you see? – Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against spiles, some seated upon the pier-heads, some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster – tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremist limit of the land ; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling. And there they stand -miles of them – leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets, avenues – north, east, south and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?’

Melville asks why these ocean reveries? Seems ter me Robert Frost identifies the attraction the sea has for we humans, in his seemingly simple poem, ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,’ quoted in full at the end of this post:

‘They cannot look out far,
They cannot look in deep,
But whenever was that a bar
To any watch they keep? ‘

As a symbol and literally as well, the sea is a challenge for us of what lies beyond the horizon and what lies beneath its inscrutable surface.

The significance of seafaring in human history is examined  by Karl Popper in the first volume of ‘The Open Society And Its Enemies.’  Popper attributes the breakdown of the closed society to the beginnings of sea communications and commerce in ancient Greece. He traces the historic development back ter the time when population growth in Greece led to the creation of daughter cities and new cultural contacts that undermined the feeling of necessity in which tribal institutions had been viewed.

The birth of a new seafaring and commercial class challenged old tribal hierarchies and brought about an intellectual and political revolution, the invention of critical discussion and the political experiment of democratic government. (Chapter 10.)

The wise move; the good stand still.

A perspective on maritime Greek society in comparison to continental China is suggested by this passage in the Confucian Analects:

‘The wise man delights in water;
the good man delights in mountains.

The wise move; the good stay still.’

(V1 21)

In ‘A Short History Of Chinese Philosophy,’ the author, Fung Yu-Lan, observes that from the time of Confucius until the end of the 19th century, no Chinese thinker had the experience of venturing on the high seas. The ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers not only lived under different geographic conditions, but different economic conditions as well

In their economic and social thinking, Chinese philosophers made a distinction between agriculture, ‘the root,’ and secondary economic activity, ‘ the branch.’  Socially, people who dealt with ‘the branch,’ artisans and merchants, were the lowest of China’s four traditional classes. Scholars, usually landlords, and farmers, were connected by agriculture, their outlook essentially the shared outlook of the farmer.

Both lived on the land, which is unmovable, as did their families before them. The Chinese family system was the hierarchical social system of China and a great part of Confucianism is the justification for this conservative way of life.

Fung Yu- Lan notes that for the Greeks, living in a maritime country and maintaining their prosperity through commerce, ‘the wise move,’ were not suspicious of novelty, and living as townspeople, organized society, not as a family hierarchy, but as a city-state.

City states by the sea – and so it is today, many of our great cities are ports.

Earth is the water planet.

Serfs livin’ on the littoral are cognizant of the weather, whether sunshine or rain, rain preferred ter floods. Earth is the water planet, seventy per cent of it, Noah’s flood is with us yet, all the great continents adrift in a world awash with seas, crested waves rifting their shores. Planet Earth’s climate created by action of the sun and the sea.

And now a look at some sea-science.


 The Unsuspected Global Warming Culprit, El Nino Southern Oscillation.

 Bob Tisdale 2012

In this book, available at his blog and elsewhere on the internet, Bob Tisdale demonstrates that global warming of the last 30 years can be explained without greenhouse gasses He argues that models forced by man made greenhouse gasses give a flawed representation of earth’s climate and that oceans, covering 70% of the globe, have a major influence on the earth’s weather.

Most important for earth’s climate is the Pacific Ocean, covering an enormous 32%
of  the surface of the earth and at the equator stretching half way around the globe. ENSO events take place here and Bob Tisdale argues, that except for explosive volcanic eruptions, they are the natural phenomena that have the greatest effect on global surface temperatures.

Tisdale’s book, with graphs and animations, analyses the ENSO coupled-ocean-atmosphere system of sunlight,( downward short wave radiation,) the source of ocean warming at the surface, interacting with air circulation, affecting prevailing winds and build up of clouds that condense as heat-releasing rain, or like venetian blinds allow more or less sunlight to enter the system. ENSO events influence cycles of air circulation and ocean currents that carry heat pole-ward where it can more easily be radiated into space. In the ENSO system, El Nino events help to reduce the temperature differences between tropics and poles that would not exist without them.

To avoid the problems of comparing two or more data sets involving north and south hemispheres and diurnal or seasonal signals, the sea surface temperature and other datasets in Bob Tisdale’s book are presented as anomalies, not as absolute values..  The linear trend, (Fig 2/10 East Pacific SS Temp Anomalies, 90S – 90N 180-80W Nov 1981-April 2001) shows that a large portion of the global oceans has warmed very little in the last 30 + years.  Sea surface anomalies of the NINO 3-4 region, ((Lat5N-5S Long 170W-120W) are used as primary reference for timing, strength and duration of El Nino and La Nina events.

Bob Tisdale compares the satellite based sea surface temperature anomalies and computer simulations based on the climate models prepared for the IPCC 5th Assessment Report. He notes how poorly the Model Mean simulates to observed temperatures. His study uses satellite data, available since the early 1980s which he considers much more reliable than temperature measurements from ships and buoys.  The data is also more spatially complete, and as such, captures the parts of the ocean that have been cooling for the past 30 years. Tisdale questions why the MET Office chooses to exclude it.

ENSO Events

In ‘Who Turned Up The Heat,’ Bob Tisdale gives a clear account, and uses excellent visual graphics, to show the processes of El Nino and La Nina. Heat from the sun, the source of earth’s warming and strongest in the tropics, warms the top10 metres of the ocean sometimes warming the ocean to a depth of up to100m at the equator, causing complex interactions. In the tropics, the prevailing winds, the Trade Winds blow because the surface temperature at the equator is warmer than at higher latitudes. As warm moist air rises near the equator it travels pole-ward at an altitude of 10/15km, losing heat and moisture along the way. Cooler air drops at about 30degrees N and 30 degrees S. Surface winds, deflected west by the earth’s rotation, complete the circuit.

This period, when Trade Winds blow and a warm pool of water, carried by the North and South Equatorial Currents, accumulates in the west, is known as the normal ENSO Neutral Condition.  In the ENSO Neutral Condition cool sub-surface water up-wells off the coast of South America, replacing surface water pushed west by the Trade Winds. The coupled trade wind and temperature gradient between east and west become an inter-relating, re-enforcing system. In this neutral condition, the pool of warm water piles up north of Australia in what is called the West Pacific Warm Pool, resulting in about 0.5 metres difference in sea levels between western and eastern Pacific sea levels.

La Nina events are basically an exaggerated ENSO neutral state in which trade winds are stronger than normal. The stronger Trade Winds push the warm waters further to the west. With less cloud cover and more visible sunlight short-wave radiation reaching the surface of the Tropical Pacific, the ocean warms more than usual and recharges the heat lost in the last El Nino. Most times La Nina supplies more heat than was discharged by the previous El Nino, but occasionally, as in some of the La Nina’s of the 1970’s and the La Nina of 1995-1996 it supplies more heat.

EL NINO Events.

In the ‘normal’ ENSO condition the strong trade winds pushing water to the west,   push clouds west as well, but in an El Nino, the trade winds weaken generally resulting from a weather event, or group of weather events in the western tropical pacific – like a tropical cyclone. When this happens, gravity takes over and warm water from the Pacific Warm Pool sloshes to the East. In an El Nino the Equatorial Counter Current expands, ‘fuelled’ by water from the Warm Pool. Usually

some warm water remains in the Pacific Warm Pool but the strongest El Nino of the 20th century drained it of warm water.

El Nino events discharge heat from the tropical Pacific where the sunlight is most concentrated. Atmospheric and ocean circulations then carry heat pole-ward, where it can be more easily radiated into space. In doing so, El Nina events help to reduce the temperature difference between the tropics and the poles that would exist without them.

Hmm … some of us serfs, accustomed ter life on the littoral have noticed that the weather hasn’t warmed like the models predicted, and reading Bob Tisdale’s book, well, it makes a lotta sense, cooling clouds an’ such … worth reading the book fer yerselves.

And here’s a serf’s imaginary journey on the ocean ….

The Canoe.

The canoe crossed latitude twelve north on the fifth or perhaps the sixth day, though human measurements like these, ‘sixth day,’ ‘twelfth latitude,’ had little meaning in the natural world of ocean, sky and land’s end in which the canoe was drifting. Here, nature’s cycles, acting as gyres within gyres, become the measure of all things. Diurnal cycles of day followed by night, seasonal cycles of calm and storm, ocean currents driven by surface winds and the earth’s spin, create the changing ‘now’. And in the ocean depths, the mysterious conveyor belt currents flow like great arteries, up welling and down welling to imperatives of salinity and heat.

But now, all is sparkling surface. The dancing sea glitters with broken light. Sea and sky merge in a haze of water vapour and scattered photons. As the sun climbs in the sky, in the dugout canoe a puddle of yesterday’s rain begins to steam. Rising and falling with the sea’s movement, borne by the great North Pacific current, the canoe seems the tiniest mote, its wake an indiscernible ripple, in the blue expanse of ocean and sky.

The tropical sun is strong. The blue expanse of ocean and sky is changing. As the sun heats the ocean, evaporation increases. By mid morning, warm air rises to mass as fleecy clouds that float above the iridescent sea and cast cooling shadows on its surface. But still the ocean warms, evaporation rises and suddenly cumulus clouds transform into thunderstorm clouds, towers of cumulonimbus that hide the sun. Always interaction of cycles, solar cycles, cycles of water and weather. What was sparkling surface a short time ago has now become three-dimensional storm scape, crested waves overturning into sea troughs, heaped clouds clashing and reconfiguring.

As the canoe journeys from one peaked wave to the next, it is almost drowned by white spray, its outrigger rising above the waves like a cry for help. But the canoe has weathered many tropical afternoon storms. They are a one-act drama that is soon over. In today’s drama, the canoe is an actor in the epic tradition, though no Jason or Ulysses steers the small craft as it ploughs through stormy seas. The dramatic scene includes lighting and sound effects, treble bursts of sleeting rain accompanied by occasional thunder, dramatic overhead lighting emerging from the radiant silver edges of storm clouds. These storm clouds, like the Janus masks of Greek drama, have two faces. The dark side is now turned towards Earth, the gleaming other face of the cloud-mask reflecting sunlight back into space.

The storm runs its course. By nightfall the canoe-protagonist has survived all that nature has thrown at it. Clouds drift and melt away. The canoe travels on through the night and through many nights, under an immense sky in which a full moon waxes and wanes. On one moonlit night, as gentle waves roll by the canoe like scrolled silver, there appears on the horizon a silvery jet, the mysterious spouting of a sperm whale. If the canoe had carried a human pilot, he might have welcomed this silvery vapour as evidence that here in an endless ocean existed another living creature, however inscrutable, that is as warm blooded as himself.

A human pilot might have wondered about the sperm whale’s mysterious spouting, as Herman Melville wondered in his novel, ‘Moby Dick.’ Melville writes about  the whale’s periodical visits to the upper world to breathe through the spiracle on the top of its head ‘so that for an hour or more, a thousand fathoms in the sea,’ he carries in him ‘a surplus stock of vitality.’ And unless molested, the sperm whale that has risen to the surface, will remain there for the same period of time as all his other risings. If a whale jets seventy times, ‘then whenever he rises again, he will be sure to have his seventy breaths over again, to a minute.’ But what most relates whales and humans also makes whales most vulnerable to us. For if a sperm whale is attacked by whalers and has to sound before he has taken his full complement of breaths,’ he will be always dodging up again to make good his regular allowance of air.’

This sperm whale continues spouting its silvery jet for the allotted time. While the human pilot of a craft, a Jason or Ulysses, is sometimes diverted, for a short time, from his chosen destiny, by the allure of a Calypso or the attractions of the women of Lemnos, or perhaps by the mysterious jetting of a whale, the little canoe never diverges from its course.

The canoe is now travelling in a north-westerly direction. By morning it is crossing over the Mariana Trench, one of the ocean’s great subduction zones where the plates of continents collide and merge, continuously reshaping the ocean floor. Beneath the gently rocking canoe glide shadowy half visible creatures. These are the animals that live in the upper layers of the ocean. The canoe cannot know that it hovers above a precipice that is more than eleven kilometres deep, the deepest abyss in all the oceans. Edmund Hilary’s climb from the summit of Mount Everest to the valley floor below was not so far.

If the tiny canoe were now to up end and dive, down and down into the midnight depths of the MarianaTrench, it would take many hours to reach the ocean floor. Terrible fate, to enter a world inhabited by ghostly life forms, luminescent angler fish with razor teeth and glaring eyes, strange squid with waving tentacles that grope in the inky darkness for food. Here drift flotsam from the sunlit zone above, flowers of anemone, fractals of broken fish, sometimes descending with all slowness, the pallid corpse of a drowned sailor.

The canoe does not enter the abyss, for it was built by human hands to sail upon the surface of the oceans in the full gaze of the midday sun or at night be guided by the moon’s reflected light and the sparking of cheerful stars. For those humans who build boats, humans who navigate the seas and others who never leave the drifting continents where they were born, attraction to light is a biological imperative. Any wonder that metaphors of light and darkness underlie their religions, philosophy and arts. More wonder that some among them, men and women, venture to explore the dark zones of deep oceans and mysterious space.

It is almost night.The canoe is carried by the current in the path of the setting sun. It glides on a sea that has become a sheet of burnished metal, like the  Bronze Age shield reflecting in its surface the flames of a burning city. But not for long. The sun disappears below the horizon. Sea and sky are drained of light then it is night. To the east a rim of crescent moon casts a faint gleam.Overhead, Articus, brightest star in the constellation of Bootes, becomes visible. One by one, other constellations litter the night sky. Corona Borealis, Hercules, and further north,Virgo, friendly compass points for sailors who read the heavens but unimportant to a drifting canoe, its fate determined, not by the stars’ mystique but by the force of the irresistible current.

A change of direction. The North Equatorial Gyre is merging with the fast moving Kuroshio Current that flows northward past Japan, driven by the ‘Coriolis force,’ an effect of the Earth’s rotation. The canoe drifts in an ocean mysteriously transformed from saphire to navy blue, a colour that eighteenth century Japanese artist Hokusai captures in a famous wood block print called ‘The Great Wave,’ one of his ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.’  Like other artists of the past, through his land and sea scapes, Hokusai explored the subjectivity of human perception, though unfamiliar with the physics of scattered light or the physiology of the human eye.

A change of speed. The canoe undergoes a sea-change in the Kuroshio Current. At mid-day, perhaps a little later, someone standing near the summit of Mount Fuji, a tourist looking through very powerful binoculars, might have glimpsed, between the troughs of waves, a tiny canoe travelling north. At speeds as high as six kilometres an hour, the canoe is carried inexorably by the racing tide towards arctic regions of ice and the wrecked hulks of ships.

Gliding past Japan’s north island of Hokkaido, the canoe reaches latitude forty where the warm Kuroshio Current collides with the sub-arctic Oyashio Current flowing south from the Kamchatka Peninsula.  In these rich fishing waters the canoe has company, a cloud of screeching gulls flying overhead, a flotilla of dolphins swimming alongside. For an hour the dolphins play with the canoe, diving beneath it and through its wake. Then as the canoe is carried into the northern arm of the Great Pacific Gyre, leaving the Kuroshio Current behind, they are gone.

The canoe is now travelling in dismal latitudes south of the Aleutian Islands, pale northern seas beneath a sky the colour of lead. Early one morning it drifts through a school of mackerel that turn this way and that, a flash of silver knives. The mackerel are like large flocks of birds that wheel about and never collide, moving as though in response to some mysterious attractor. A dark shadow rising from the depths and the mackerel scatter, as the canoe drifts on, entering waters known as a graveyard of ships. This is not the season of strong storms, however, and for days on end the westerly wind only whips up white – capped waves and carries sleeting rain. But as the canoe travels nearer to the coast of Alaska, it runs into the tail end of a storm.

At dusk, as the storm clears, a bird lands on the outrigger of the canoe. Through the night, the canoe has a companion, a bedraggled Shearwater, an unpaying lodger who departs silently at dawn. This is to be the canoe’s last living contact, there will be no more visitors, no seabirds, mackerel or dolphins. The final stage of the canoe’s epic journey must be endured, like the voyage of a lone mariner who ventures through these northern latitudes at the onset of winter. How doleful a region. How deeply will the funeral skies and grey hooded waves affect his feelings. No sound but the wind and waves. Perhaps the lone mariner hears, in the murmuring seas, the plaintive cries and whispers of long drowned sailors. How eagerly he scans his charts and the horizon, searching for signs of land.

Days pass and weeks. Driven by the earth’s rotation the current is turning south. Now the canoe is in the California Current, travelling parallel to the coast of North  America, white spray blown across its bow by the strong breeze. Soon the wind becomes a gale, waves become towering mountains. The sound of the sea no longer seems plaintive cries but the shrieks of all the sailors who have drowned since Noah’s flood first inundated a whole world. Valiantly the tiny canoe climbs each wave and teeters on its edge before tipping in a sled-like slide into its perilous trough. How many times the canoe climbs, hovers, falls, until caught in a mighty wave, it over turns. Its outrigger broken and torn, the stricken canoe drifts half submerged in the churning sea.


On a Californian beach, two children are walking with their grandfather at the sea’s edge. The beach is scarcely recognizable after yesterday’s storm and last night’s spring tide. For the last two days, ocean tides have been spring tides, tides when a full moon or a new moon phase exert a stronger than usual pull on the Earth’s oceans. Rifting waves have sculpted the beach into unfamiliar deep channels and islands. The shore is littered with debris, ships’ ropes, spars, a dead seal, and something else. The children are curious and run to investigate.

Caught in an outcrop of rock lies the canoe. It has reached the end of its journey.

The children stare at the broken canoe. They have never seen a boat that looked like this. Their grandfather knows something of the history of boats. He tells the children it has travelled half way across the Pacific Ocean from islands where they build the fastest canoes. He wonders about its journey.


In the Eastern Pacific, somewhere around latitude twelve, on a tiny atoll surrounding a lagoon, stands a lonely sentinel, the paddle of a canoe, wedged in the coral reef wall.

If the painted eyes of the paddle had been seeing eyes instead of symbols, the paddle might have borne witness to the island’s interacting drama, but this drama had no observers. To sea birds flying overhead, the blue lagoon itself, rimmed by its coral reef, must have seemed a giant eye looking upwards at the sky.

Charles Darwin, on his historic voyage on the HMS Beagle, discovered the origins of Pacific atolls like this one, floating on a liquid lens of fresh water above the heavier water of the sea.* Darwin discovered that reef coral, which cannot grow at depths greater than thirty fathoms, begin life in the shallows around a volcanic rock island.

As sea levels rise, the coral grow upwards while the island becomes submerged by
sea. All that remains is a ring of reef and coral atolls around a central lagoon.

Always inter-connections. In his essay, ‘Floating Islands,’ * Willis Eschenbach describes how a coral atoll exists in a delicate balance between new coral and sand being added to the reef wall and coral and sand being eroded by the action of wind and waves. If our paddle sentinel had ears to hear with, very keen ears, instead of painted curlicues that only suggested ears, it might have heard the beaked parrot fish at work on the reef, grinding up coral in their massive jaws, which they excrete as new sand, replenishing the sand and rubble washed away by water and blown away by wind.

But today something else is happening. For the last two days, ocean tides have been spring tides. In this full moon phase, the last two high tides have reached the level in the reef wall where the paddle stands guard and the motion of the waves are shaking the paddle loose. Each day it leans a little more to the west. Today is the rare event of a proxigean spring tide, which occurs perhaps once in two years when the full or new moon is aligned between the Sun and Earth and at its closest perigee to Earth. Now the rifting waves of the spring tide dislodge the paddle from its resting place and carry it, in and out, on the churning tide. Hours pass and the paddle drifts further from the reef. By late evening the ebbing tide has borne the paddle far out to sea where it is captured by another of nature’s great gyres, the powerful North Equatorial Current.

Half submerged in the current, the paddle is moving as though in blind allegiance to some mysterious fate. One painted eye fixed on the starlit heavens above, the other on the shadowy deep below, the paddle journeys to an unknown destination, to arrive where?

* Charles Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle.” Chapter XX (J.M.Dent 1959)
* Willis Eschenbach, “Floating Islands.” Blog Guest Post: (27/0 /2009)

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.

The people along the sand
All look and turn one way,
They turn their back on the land,
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass,
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be-
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far,
They cannot look in deep,
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep.

Robert Frost.

9 thoughts on “FOURTH EDITION

      • No. It’s quite short. Why not go as long as you like, in a kind of monthly digest, like in the old days? People may only read morsels, or they may read all. Why not? There are blogs everywhere, but digests? A rarity worth reviving.

  1. Hi Beth: I enjoyed your overview of my book very much. But there’s a misunderstanding about what initiates an El Niño. You wrote:

    “In the ‘normal’ ENSO condition the strong trade winds pushing water to the west, push clouds west as well, and with less cloud the Eastern Pacific becomes warmer. As the NINO 3-4 region warms because of less cloud, and the West Pacific Warm Pool cools because clouds precipitate rainfall, the temperature gradient between east and west decreases and the Trade Winds weaken.”

    During ENSO-neutral conditions, the trade winds push the water west and push the clouds west, too. That part of your explanation is correct. But the rest of your explanation in what I quoted is flawed.

    As you noted in the paragraphs preceding it, the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific are cooler than in the west. That is caused by the upwelling of cool subsurface waters taking place in the eastern equatorial Pacific. Cloud cover under normal conditions is also stratified from west to east, with the cool water in the east creating less clouds and the warmer water in the west creating more clouds. The sunlight warms that cool water as it travels from east to west. And I was also pleased to note that you picked up on the sea surface height difference—normally higher in the western tropical Pacific than in the east—which is caused by the temperature difference and the trade winds pushing all of the water to the west. And as you noted, under ENSO neutral conditions, the temperature difference from east to west reinforces the trade winds, and the trade winds reinforce the temperature difference. Because the trade winds and temperature difference from east to west reinforce one another (positive feedback), something outside of “normal” has to overcome that relationship.

    The weakening of the trade winds generally results from a weather event or group of weather events in the western tropical Pacific, like a tropical cyclone—not because of variations in surface temperatures and cloud cover in the NINO3.4 region or farther east as you described.

    Again, thank you for including my book in your post.

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